I’m Spanish but sometimes see TV shows in English.

My question is whether the words horse and whores sound exactly the same, because in many English language TV shows it seems like they are, which really surprises me.

Are they homophones?

I cannot hear any voicing at the end of the word whores to distinguish the two words.

  • 7
    You'll get a similarity between "whores" and "horse" in some accents (I'm tempted to say southern US maybe?), but definitely not all. – AndyT Aug 11 '16 at 11:21
  • 83
    I'm now hearing 'get off your horse and drink your milk' in a worrying new light. – Spagirl Aug 11 '16 at 13:29
  • 14
    Obligatory Cyanide and Happiness cartoon in this context. – oerkelens Aug 12 '16 at 12:58
  • 6
    What about whores and hoarse? – user2180613 Aug 12 '16 at 14:21
  • 15
    There was a joke about this in "the big bang theory", where the indian guy says "the only way to feel better about Penny going out with other guys is to get back on the whores". Other guys correct him "the phrase is get back on the horse" to which he responds "that's discusting, dude!" You can recognize the difference with longer o and the ending z here – diynevala Aug 12 '16 at 15:13
up vote 410 down vote accepted

In most varieties of English, these two words are not homophones. But there is an interesting story about why this is so.

In English the alveolar fricatives /s/ and /z/ are contrastive. Notionally, the first is unvoiced and the second voiced. So we can find minimal pairs of words where the difference in voicing results in a change of meaning:

  • /su:/
  • /zu:/

The first word here is the word sue or Sue, the second is the word zoo.

In a language like Spanish, there is only one alveolar fricative, /s/. This is usually voiceless (although it can become voiced in certain environments). However because there is no phoneme /z/ in Spanish, if a speaker uses a [z] instead of an [s] in a word, it will still be recognised as the same word. So, for example, English speakers of Spanish may well use a [z] in all sorts of words where a Spanish speaker would use an [s], but it will always be recognised as the Spanish phoneme /s/. In other words a Spanish speaker will always map both an [s] and a [z] sound onto the Spanish phoneme /s/.

Because of this lack of contrast in Spanish, it is often difficult for Spanish speakers to differentiate between /s/ and /z/ when listening to English.

Now, many English speakers will tell you that the sound at the end of the word whores is voiced. In actual fact, if it is not followed by a word beginning with a voiced sound, then the /z/ at the end of the word whores will be at least partially, and quite probably completely devoiced. We would show this in a narrow transcription by putting a little circle as a diacritic under the z:

  • [hɔ:z̥]

    British English transcription

A native English speaker will swear blind—I predict at least ten comments under this post saying exactly this—that they can hear the voicing in the sound at the end of the word whores when spoken naturally. However, if you cut that devoiced /z/ off the end of the word and play it back to them without the rest of the word they will confidently tell you that it's an /s/.

Here is what is really happening when a native speaker hears the word whores and why they can differentiate it from the word horse. Unvoiced consonants have an effect on preceding vowels, whereby they cause them to become much shorter. This effect is known as prefortis clipping. If you say the word bead and then the word beat you should be able to hear that the vowel in the word beat is much shorter than the vowel in the word bead. [Try it at home!] It is the unclipped, and therefore relatively long vowel in the word bead that tells your language brain that the phoneme at the end is a 'voiced' /d/ and not an unvoiced /t/. Your brain will trick you into thinking that the sound at the end of the word bead is voiced, but this is just because of the length of the vowel.

So, if a Spanish speaker listening to the word whores and horse puts all their concentration into listening to whether they can hear any voicing in the fricative at the ends of these words, they will not be able to detect any. However, if they concentrate on the contrasting lengths of the vowels, they will notice that the vowel in horse is much shorter than the vowel in whores. This is actually what leads English speakers to hear the difference between the two words.

The story above is true for both standard British and American English (both words will have an /r/ of course in most varieties of American English). However, there may well be varieties of English which use different vowels in each of these two items.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 24 '16 at 1:47

Although the phonetic transcription in a dictionary may be the same, I do hear a difference in most native accents.

  • Start: I'd say the H in Horse is a bit stronger than the WH
  • Middle: I'd say the O in horse is more of an oe and shorter than in whore.

You would probably hear more difference in some accents than others, though. My2¢

EDIT. This comment by @tchrist explained it far better, in a more technical way:

The voiced /z/ of the WH- word triggers a longer /o/vowel via regressive assimilation, which triggers more pronounced rounding of that /o/, which in turn triggers greater rounding of the initial consonant than occurs in the H- word, again via regressive assimilation

  • 11
    I'm very skeptical that there's any measurable difference between the initial consonants of "horse" and "whores." I think that part should only be included in your answer if you have some kind of supporting evidence. – sumelic Aug 12 '16 at 9:45
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    I make clear in my answer that it is only my perception. I state it as an opinion and not as a fact. The fact is than the dictionary says they are alike, that is my unsupporting evidence, but I do hear differences, as others have stated above too. You should not vote down an opinion defined as an opinion just because you don't agree with it. You should comment on it but not vote it down. Or is it only because I have a Spanish name? – Santi Pérez Aug 12 '16 at 9:51
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    @sumelic The voiced /z/ of the WH- word triggers a longer /o/vowel via regressive assimilation, which triggers more pronounced rounding of that /o/, which in turn triggers greater rounding of the initial consonant than occurs in the H- word, again via regressive assimilation This is what the poster is noticing. – tchrist Aug 12 '16 at 12:17
  • @tchrist: Does that happen? I'd be interested in learning if the voicing of the final consonant actually has such far-reaching effects. I had no idea of any of those details from this post. I also would not have been able to interpret "a bit stronger" as meaning "less rounded." – sumelic Aug 12 '16 at 13:02
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    @sumelic In my own experience, the poster is correct, as per the explanation provided by tchrist. Santi, you might want to edit some version of his comment into your answer to make it stronger. – Chris Sunami Aug 12 '16 at 14:55

In addition to the excellent points made above, one interesting example of how pronunciation shifts over time is that "whore" and "hour" were homophones in Shakespeare's day, which casts a rather different light on this passage from As You Like It:

And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, 'It is ten o'clock:
Thus we may see,' quoth he, 'how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.

  • Actually, I suspect "whore" had an /h/, while "hour" didn't. But quite possibly the /h/ was dropped in some accents in "an hour", "one hour", "from hour" (if it wasn't dropped entirely). – Peter Shor Jun 1 '17 at 14:26
  • 1
    There was a joke I remember from my childhood (maybe 45 years ago) which ended in the punchline of "there's nae trains for twa hours" - said by an Aberdonian station-master to two ladies of the night. It didn't occur to me as strange at the time but in hindsight it relies on the pronunciation of 'hours' with the initial 'h' not being silent. So I suspect that at least in the past, Scottish pronunciation of hours was similar to the Shakespearean pronunciation referenced above. (Of course you are all aware that the Scottish pronunciation of 'whores' is somewhere between 'hoors' and 'hoo-ers'...) – Graham Toal Jul 14 '17 at 7:49

The forms 'whores' and 'horse' are not homophones in a standard (English/American/Australian) dialect and etymologically speaking the 'w' is a late (C15/16) spurious addition so should not make any difference to pronunciation. However, children learning a rare and archaic word from books/reading may pronounce as 'wars' or transfer stronger rounding from the functional wh* (pronoun/adjective interrogative/relative words - esp. 'who' which originally have a hw* or earlier kw* or qu* type origin). See e.g. etymonline.com under 'whore' and 'wh-'.

The big difference is the longer long 'o' in 'whore' versus the shorter long 'o' in 'horse'. While in both cases the 'o' is long, it is shorter before 's' (or an unvoiced stop) and longer still due to the prevocalized plural /s/ or [zs] (say 'horses' aloud and you should hear your voicing pulse on and off again like [szs]).

Thus the second subtler difference is the (pre)voiced plural morph /s/ = [z] or [zs] in 'whores' (bleeding but diminishing voicing) versus /s's/ = [s's] or [szs] in 'horses'.

As tchrist points out in a comment on another post, the lengthening of the vowel tends to allow stronger rounding and thus licenses the lead 'w' or 'whore' (backward assimilation). Similarly the vowel is more open/lower (bottom lip and jaw drop more). I see these phenomena as deriving from more time to pronounce the word including more time to produce the rounding and height features of the vowel, starting during the preceding consonant.

The plural morpheme takes on the unvoiced form [s] only after an unvoiced consonant, including when doubled as an extra syllable in 'horses' where there is actually no vowel corresponding to the 'e'. The 's' in both 'horse' and 'horses' is unvoiced, so [s] not [z].

Note that quotes as 's' represent what is written ('orthography'), slash bracketing represents conventional (phonemic or morphemic) base representation corresponding to what people think they are saying: /s/ by convention used for the plural morpheme though phonemically arguably /z/ is more appropriate, before any phonetic variation (free variation or coarticulation related to context that changes the phonetic form/morph), while square brackets represent more accurately what is actually pronounced: [z] is the plural morph after vowels or voiced consonants, and [s] is the plural morph with voicing lost after unvoiced consonants similar to the usual pronuncation of the phoneme /s/ in general, including when syllabic ('rose' involves /z/ not /s/ --> [z] with 'roses' as [z'z] versus 'horses' which is /s/ --> [s] and [s's].

Here ['z] and ['s] and ['n] etc. indicate a syllabic form often conventionally replaced by a schwa (rotated e for a minimal vowel representing voicing punctuating but nor interrupting the [szs]) and correctly written with the prime symbol underneath the consonant (not sure I could insert the unicode here).

  • By "long 'o'" are you talking about phonetic, allophonic length like Araucaria? That seems most likely to me, but I wasn't quite sure, since some people use "long o" to refer to the vowel of "goat" and "short o" to refer to the vowel of "lot." Also, I think it's possible this could cause confusion for future readers aside from me. – sumelic Aug 16 '16 at 5:09
  • @sumelic yes and no - yes it is phonetic and hence technically an allophone, but I regard length as a phonemic feature in 'horse' as indicated by the 'r' (as in 'hoar'), and am here ignoring the stronger allophonic diphthong feature of shifting to a schwa or higher transition into the sibilant as the jaw moves up. – David M W Powers Aug 16 '16 at 5:16
  • I've tried to clarify by editing the answer: it is phonemically a long vowel in both words, but shorter before [s] or [t] in 'horse' or 'horse to water' or 'horticulture' or 'whore to culture' (these two can reduce to sound the same) and longer before the /s/ or /z/ plural morph which includes a prevoicing component in the allophone used after vowels, diphthongs and voice consonants, thus making a longer allophone in 'whores' and a shorter allophone in 'horse' of what is in both cases phonemically a long vowel. – David M W Powers Aug 16 '16 at 5:51

The words aren't homophones in Boston because we pronounce "horse" as "hoss," and sometimes "whores" is pronounced "hoes." So you see, we Bostonians can easily distinguish between "whores" and "horse" -- and verbally too. Hahaha Not, I hasten to add, that we have either in Boston.

Here is an American voice pronouncing "whores, horrors, horse, and hours" back to back. I think it might be interesting to play the video for a couple of people who can't see it, to find out if they can hear the difference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3JZLV9IpK0 (around 2.5)

I saw chalked on the sidewalk outside an elementary school:

"Susan is a hour."

protected by Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 15 '16 at 15:06

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