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In received pronunciation, the word "father" ends in /ə/. I haven't found an IPA transcription of the plural form, and am wondering:

  • RP being non-rhotic, is the "r" here excluded?
  • Is the S voiced (/z/) or unvoiced (/s/)?
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RP is indeed non-rhotic, and hence syllable-finall 'r's are not generally pronounced.

In your section question, English has a phenomenon whereby phrase-final voiced fricatives are commonly devoiced. So when pronounced before a pause, a final -s will generally be devoiced. However, it still carries some features of its underlying "voiced" nature, for example lengthening the preceding vowel.

The latter phenomenon isn't restricted to RP: it's common in many accents of English, both British and American.

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What confused me here was that the 'r' isn't the final sound in the syllable. Or are all 'r's in the coda silent? Also: Is "phrase" a linguistic term that I do not know of, or do you mean that whether the 's' is voiced or not depends on whether it comes last in a group of words? – user4727 Jun 8 '11 at 23:41
@Neil I don't understand what the de-voicing you're talking about is. Could you give an example? – z7sg Ѫ Jun 8 '11 at 23:52
@Tim -- yes, arguably the full version would be something like "'r's that would have been syllable-final are not pronounced". For 'phrase' read something like 'a high level of prosodic organisation' that would generally be separated by "pauses" (either actually or conceptually). – Neil Coffey Jun 9 '11 at 4:25
@z7sg De-voicing means you stop the vocal cords from vibrating during what would normally have been a voiced sound. If you hold your fingers against the front of your neck while saying "fafafafafa", you'll feel vibration during the "a"s (because they're voiced) but not during the "f"s (because they're unvoiced). Now, if a native English speaker does this for "fathers and children" vs "three fathers", they'll probably feel the vibration during the "s" in the first case, but not the second. – Neil Coffey Jun 9 '11 at 4:31
[ctd] However, there's still a subtle difference between the /z/ pronounced as [s] ("fathers") vs the /s/ of "bus": /z/ lengthens the previous vowel, even when devoiced. If a native English speaker says "phase" vs "face", they'll generally find that it takes them longer to pronounce "phase" than "face", even though in both cases, the final sound is effectively [s]. In "phase", we "hear" a [z] sound because of the lengthened vowel, but if you actually analyse the pronunciation (e.g. on a spectrogram), you'll see the final sound of "phase" isn't generally voiced for much of its duration. – Neil Coffey Jun 9 '11 at 4:37

The -s inflectional endings are voiced /z/ if the ending of the word is a voiced non-sibilant but if it is an unvoiced consonant the inflectional ending is unvoiced /s/.


steps /stɛps/

If the word ends in a sibilant, an epenthetic vowel is appended before a voiced sibilant /z/

glasses /ˈglɑːsɪz/

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The vowel sound before the 's' confused me. Thinking of the 'e' as merely epenthetic helps, thanks. – user4727 Jun 8 '11 at 23:43

Yes, the r is silent; by compensation, the /ə/ is lengthened a bit.

The s is voiced, /z/. You can hear it pronounced on Howjsay. This /z/ does not depend on whether the r is rhotic or not: the s is also voiced in balls etc.

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Actually, in many accents of English, including RP, it's common to devoice phrase-final fricatives. (See my answer below.) – Neil Coffey Jun 8 '11 at 23:35
@Cerberus, it's usual to transcribe it as /z/ even though it is voiceless, because it is pronounced with less intensity—it is "lenited"—and so /s/–/z/ form a "fortis–lenis" distinction phrase-finally rather than a "voiceless–voiced" distinction. – nohat Jun 9 '11 at 0:53
@nohat: Ah, I see. I knew it had to be something complicated. I always had my doubts about final s, but I usually saw it transcribed like this and copied that. Is there a more accurate way of transcribing it than /z/? Does it make sense to transcribe it at all, considering that it is pronounced differently depending on what sound follows it? You could make this into an answer... – Cerberus Jun 9 '11 at 1:03
@Cerberus, of course it depends on what kind of transcription you are trying to make, whether you are trying to transcribe broadly—what sound category (phoneme) someone thinks they are producing— or narrowly—what actual sound someone is producing. In the latter case, you could use the IPA "voiceless" diacritic (a small circle) underneath the z to indicate that it is being produced voicelessly. – nohat Jun 9 '11 at 1:24
@Cerberus, yes, because people don't think about the fact that they are doing final devoicing. They just think they are pronouncing /z/, which is how it would sound if it were not phrase-final. Consider "my father's advice". – nohat Jun 9 '11 at 2:14

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