Voicing Surprise.

I was listening to NPR news this morning, as is my wont (a word, incidentally, that I pronounce identically to the contraction won’t, one of three or four versions current in the US), when a newscaster made me exclaim in astonishment: she pronounced the plural deaths with a voiced -th-, as /dɛðz/. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon involved, a historical process of voicing stem-final fricatives:

The voicing alternation found in plural formation is losing ground in the modern language, and of the alternations listed below many speakers retain only the [f-v] pattern, which is supported by the orthography. This voicing is a relic of Old English, the unvoiced consonants between voiced vowels were ‘colored’ with voicing. As the language became more analytic and less inflectional, final vowels/syllables stopped being pronounced. For example, modern knives is a one syllable word instead of a two syllable word, with the vowel ‘e’ not being pronounced. However, the voicing alternation between [f] and [v] still occurs.

As examples of optional voicing with -th- (which is, of course, not indicated by English spelling), they give ba[θ] – ba[ð]s, mou[θ] – mou[ð]s, oa[θ] – oa[ð]s, pa[θ] – pa[ð]s, and you[θ] – you[ð]s. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never before heard it with death.

Totally unrelated, but I want to get it on record: I occasionally mutter to myself a couplet from the deep recesses of my memory, “Keats had TB, Shelley drowned, Shakespeare lies in the cold, cold ground.” I vaguely assumed it was well known, part of everyone’s cultural detritus, but when I googled it to find out its origin, I discovered it’s from a forgotten science fiction story by a forgotten author, Winona McClintic’s “In the Days of Our Fathers.” It was first published in the inaugural (Fall 1949) issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, back when it was still called The Magazine of Fantasy, and apparently has only been reprinted once, in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (1952), so I may be one of the few people on earth who keep it ready to the mind’s hand. Since I think it’s striking (and a useful memory aid), I’m putting it here so it can infect more people. And one of these days I’ll have to do a thorough search of the cellar and find the box containing the first issues of F&SF, always my favorite sf magazine; I haven’t seen it since we moved into this house almost a decade ago, and I’d like to wallow in nostalgia for a while.


  1. January First-of-May says

    A search for the sentence in quotes gets four results (to me, a few minutes ago) – your post (which I’m currently commenting on), and three copies of the same historical essay (which, for some unfathomable reason, spells Winona’s last name as “McClintock”).

  2. Voicing in the plural “deaths” is probably not that common, but I have certainly heard it enough times to consider it unremarkable.

  3. Really! Well, once again I have had my preconceptions overturned, and am a better man for it.

  4. Voiced deaths and wont as won’t sound equally weird to me. Have only ever heard wont as ‘want’. Though come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve heard it aloud that often. (Canadian, btw.)

  5. I’ve never heard [ðz] in deaths, any more than in breaths. It seems to be a not-quite universal rule that plural -ths is [θs] after short vowels, eg myths, smiths, and [ðz] after long vowels/diphthongs. Or does anyone say breaths, myths, smiths with [ðz]?

  6. This Canuck has always (I think) heard deaths unvoiced, and ditto for oaths, by the way.

    And I’ve always (again, I think) heard wont pronounce as won’t is pronounced. As it occurs only in the phrase ‘as is my (his, etc.) wont’ there is no confusion.

    I am a Westcoaster, and RO may be from elsewhere. Specifically, I’m from Victoria, where tendrils of British English may have survived longer, at least into the early Sixties, at least jocularly.

    I’m still hearing it occasionally even here in Haida Gwaii, a hotbed of American English language and customs, owing to the influx of Americans since the Seventies.

    Old Governor Douglas of the Colony of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands Dependency would be horrified.

  7. Wont I say like won’t – I think because I learned the word from my mother, who uses the British pronunciation. I’ve never heard /dɛðz/, though.

  8. /dɛðz/ is surprising to me, too. Another unexpected pronunciation I heard recently (I think from Nate Silver?) is divisive with a lax second vowel, rhyming with missive.

    The near-zero functional load of the voicing contrast on interdentals leads to some odd variation. I know a professor who pronounces thus with /θ-/. And phrases like I think often get their th voiced (by young women here in California, anyway), though this is a kind of lenition rather than a phoneme substitution

    I also pronounce wont like won’t; I think the [ɑ] variant is a spelling pronunciation. But what are the other one or two versions?

  9. divisive with a lax second vowel, rhyming with missive.

    I hear that all the time from journalists and politicians, to the point that I think it may predominate. It rubs me the wrong way, though: I’m solidly on the side of /dəˈvaɪsɪv/.

    And phrases like I think often get their th voiced

    I’m not familiar with that one – but I do tend to elide the /k/ in I think when speaking quickly. I don’t know if I’m alone on that.

    But what are the other one or two versions?

    /ɔː/ (“waunt”) and /ʌ/ (“wunt”). The latter, apparently, is the traditional American one, though I’ve never heard it.

  10. @Ian: I’ve heard the voicing in “myths” too, although that one does still strike me as nonstandard.

  11. I hear that all the time from journalists and politicians, to the point that I think it may predominate. It rubs me the wrong way, though: I’m solidly on the side of /dəˈvaɪsɪv/.

    I concur on all points.

  12. I rarely say “wont”, and when I do I hesitate about the vowel. I don’t want it to rhyme with “want”, because for example it seems just plain bad to have “unwonted” sound exactly like “unwanted”. I believe that I opt for a pseudo-British pronunciation involving a vowel that for my dialect falls between the cracks.

  13. For me “divisive” has the vowel of “divide” rather than the vowel of “division”. I have heard it with the other.

    The word “excisive” comes up in my field of mathematics (and perhaps never outside it), but not as often as the word “excision”. I say it with the vowel of “excise” rather than that of “excision”, but I’ve noticed that some people do the reverse.

  14. I’ve heard salsa pronounced [sɑlzə], too.

  15. I have never heard divisive with the second vowel pronounced as in divise. Ditto incisive. They not only rub me the wrong way, they grate!

  16. Somebody in my algebraic topology class (don’t remember who, or whether it was a native English speaker) pronounced “excise” with an unvoiced s.

    I still rather regret that I dropped the second semester of that class. However, I just could not get any feel for abstract cohomology. I can read and understand about carry bits as cocycles, but by the next day, I have completely lost the thread of why it was important.

  17. I wonder what the origin is of the tendency to pronounce intervocalic “s” as voiceless /s/ in words ending in -sive, when we see voiced /z/ or /ʒ/ generally in equivalent words ending in -⁠sible or -sion. I guess the latter two endings also tend to be preceded by laxed vowels, while -⁠sive, as already mentioned, tends to be preceded by tense vowels. Perhaps this difference has something to do with it. But perhaps not, since divisor and incisor have tense “i” and voiced /z/.

    For some words spelled with -sive, such as invasive, adhesive, and abusive, the OED actually lists a pronunciation with /z/ as well. But a pronunciation with /s/ always seems to exist for words of this sort.


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