When you pronounce that middle consonant, do you hear z or s?

How do you pronounce “Tesla”?

Do you pronounce the middle consonant like a z, as the Italians do, or like an s, as it is spelled?

Both pronunciations are “correct,” but how do you say it?

Linguists will tell you that the sounds z and s are almost identical, differing only in one feature: while z is voiced (the vocal cords vibrate), s is voiceless (the vocal cords do not vibrate). You can put your fingers to your throat and feel the difference. The problem is that in English spelling the letter s can have both pronunciations, depending on…

Depending on what? That’s the question.

Anglo-American linguist Lynne Murphy, in her wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language, discusses this issue in a recent post. It starts out with an example that surprised me: crescent. I never imagined that anyone would voice the middle consonant sound (spelled as “sc”) in that word.

Murphy explores several words where speakers might differ in whether a consonant sound is voiced or voiceless; she listens to actual speakers; she checks what various dictionaries claim; she checks out whether American and British speakers differ systematically, as the title of her blog suggests. Or is it more narrowly regional than just which side of the pond you’re on? Anyway, go read her fascinating piece, including all the comments!

Categories: Linguistics