I read in an American Accent book that there is no break between sibilants adjoining each other between words. For example, this phrase:

I was starting to worry.

The words was + starting sound like [wəzstɑrt̬ɪŋ] with no break. Am I right? I marked the sibilant sounds with bold.

I used the schwa sound in was because it's a function word and we usually give stress to content words and reduce the function words. I also used the tapped T in the word started.

  • Isn't that true of most phonetics: tow west, great tackle, play yellow, back kick, etc? – Avon Jul 1 '15 at 20:30
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    No break, no; but usually voicing assimilation does take place, so really you'd just have [s:] rather than [zs]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 1 '15 at 20:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet the assimilation sounds out of place to me in all but the most casual or rapid speech. – phoog Jul 2 '15 at 5:22
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    @phoog: Have you actually analyzed your speech phonetically, though? It can be hard to hear these kind of assimilations and accommodations by ear. I've read that often, words like "was" that end in a phonemic /z/ have the sound partially or fully devoiced to a phonetic [s] before a pause, but it still sounds voiced to an English speaker because there are secondary effects of the phonemic voicing, such as longer vowel length. – herisson Jul 2 '15 at 19:21
  • @sumelic, agreed. Compare 'lees' and 'lease'. Native speakers at least partly rely on the longer vowel in 'lees' to distinguish it from 'lease', but pretty well all dictionaries will say that they contain the same long-E sound /i:/. – David Garner Jul 2 '15 at 22:21

Well, there is never a break between words unless you make one. You could say first the word "was", stop making sounds, then say "starting", if you chose to make that break. If there is no period of silence between them, the [zs] pronunciation is just a [z] followed immediately by [s].

If you happen to be an English speaker who customarily devoices word-final obstruents, like /z/, then the last sound of "was" will be voiceless, but it would have been anyway, regardless of whether "starting" followed. Details of how exactly word final /z/ is pronounced in various English dialects are interesting in themselves, but so far as I know, they have nothing to do with whether the next word starts with /s/.

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    Might be some assimilation. – tchrist Jul 2 '15 at 20:57
  • @tchrist, I think a final /z/ which would otherwise be devoiced may assimilate and become voiced before a following vowel. – Greg Lee Jul 2 '15 at 22:46
  • Yes, absolutely. I generally at least partially devoice word-final obstruents, but was a is still [wəzə] with full voicing. I think @tchrist meant the other way around, though: a non-devoiced (i.e., voiced) /z/ would also be likely to assimilate and become unvoiced before an unvoiced consonant, especially a homorganic /s/. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 2 '15 at 23:53

You are right. Was, despite ending with an 's' sounds like a 'z' with an American speaker no mater where you are. Because of that [wəstɑrt̬ɪŋ] isn't correct. That would only work if both the 's' in "was" and "starting" were pronounced the same. As for the lack of break, that would be correct as well. Even in a lengthened cadence such as in a Texan Drawl, it is really hard to separate them out into two distinct words and have it sound right.

  • Thanks. Your time greatly appreciated. It's good to know because there are a lot of such situations, for example: How was school? [haʊ wəzskuəl?] – Zoltan King Jul 2 '15 at 18:45
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    1) It’s not true that was ends in a phonetic [z] no matter where you are. There are plenty of people (as Greg mentions in his answer) who customarily devoice word-final obstruents—I’m one of them. 2) Not only is [wəˈstɑɹɾn̩] not incorrect, it is by far the most common pronunciation in natural, improvised, rapid, American English speech. The two sibilants are reduced to one. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 2 '15 at 23:50
  • Janus Bahs Jacquet Thank you. I reduced the two sibilants to one ['haʊ wə'skuəl?]. Could you please provide me with a feedback on my pronunciation? Does it sound natural after I reduced the two sibilants to one? dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1924024/howwasschool.wav – Zoltan King Jul 3 '15 at 8:55

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