final devoicing in American English?

Herb Stahlke hstahlke at GW.BSU.EDU
Thu Feb 24 03:26:35 UTC 2000

I've been working on both phonetic problems you bring up, and here's my take on them at this point.  What looks like final devoicing is something that occurs initially as well.  Voiced obstruents, either utterance-initial or after a voiceless consonant, are also devoiced.  One of the earlier sources to mention this is a Halle, Hughes and Radley (1957) paper in JASA 29.  They point out that the primary manner contrast in English obstruents is tense/lax, or, since that feature has been pretty much coopted for vowels, fortis/lenis.  Voicing, devoicing, aspiration, glottalization, the devoicing of unstressed schwa between fortis consonants, like in the first syllable of potato, can all be predicted on the basis of the fortis/lenis contrast.  As Halle et al. put it, "the presence or absence of English is not crucial to [the fortis/lenis] distinction." (p. 107).  I've just finished a draft of a description of all of this.

On the other matter, the affrication of /t/ and /d/ before /r/ is a secondary effect.  What happens is that coronals before homosyllabic /r/ assimilate to the retroflexion of the /r/.  You get this in "tree" and "drink" and also in "shrimp", where the initial consonant is not a palato-alveolar but a retroflexed alveolar fricative.  You can tell the difference between the two by the fact that the palato-alveolar has a high-pitched sibilance and the retroflexed one has a lower-pitched sibilance.  For many speakers the same s/s-retroflex contrast occurs in pairs like grocer/grocery and nurse/nursery.  I also find a retroflex vs. palato-alveolar contrast between luxury and luxurious, where the gzh occurs before a vowel and the gz-retroflex before consonantal /r/.

Herb Stahlke
Ball State University

<<< avine at ENG.SUN.COM  2/23  8:24p >>>
Alice Faber wrote:
> Interesting though the 10 (+/- 3) commandments are, I've got a question
> pertaining to the more conventional core mission of this list.
> I'm teaching an undergraduate course that involves some phonetic
> transcription (Intro to Psycholinguistics, to students who haven't had an
> Intro to Linguistics) for the first time in a very long time. Something
> came up in class today that I haven't previously encountered. I was doing
> the standard presentation of regular English plurals, so that the students
> could discover the phonological conditioning of /-s/, /-z/, and /-Iz/
> variants. To my surprise, several of the students insisted that /z/ in
> _dogs_ is at least partially voiceless. They weren't getting tricked by the
> orthography. (Many of them were quite positive that _tree_ begins with an
> affricate, for instance, and they were making fairly subtle vowel quality
> distinctions.) Two of them, one from northern Georgia and one whose first
> language is Russian (though her English sounds virtually accent-free), had
> more conventional final devoicing, including regressive assimilation, so
> that _dogs_ ends /ks/. These are all Wesleyan University undergrads of
> normal college age.
> Is this something that's been going on for a while, with me blissfully
> oblivious, or is it (relatively) new?
> Alice Faber

Funny you should ask this.  When I was an undergraduate (this would have been
about 18 years ago), these very issues came up in an intro ling class.  One
student insisted that "tray" began with an affricate (and it did, the way she
pronounced it) and another pronounced "bugs" with a final /s/, not /z/.  The
"bugs" student was from California - I don't know where the other student was
from.  But they were both Asian-American, sounding as though they had been born
here.  I remember wondering if there was any Asian influence, by way of
community or some such, to cause the particular sound patterns.


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