Thursday, 5 November 2009


In a television discussion between the former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and the presenter Andrew Marr, both used the pronunciation ˈspaʊzɪz for spouses (pl).
I think (though without any hard evidence) that most people pronounce this word with a voiceless sibilant at the end of the stem, ˈspaʊsɪz. (There is also a jocular plural spice spaɪs, like mouse—mice.)
There are two possible explanations for the voiced sibilant pronunciation: (i) the speakers in question say spaʊz for the singular noun; or (ii) they say spaʊs in the singular, but switch voicing for the plural.
Many dictionaries do record spaʊz as a possibility for the singular noun, although EPD/CPD is not among them. I would be pretty confident in saying that in BrE at least it is very much a minority preference.
So explanation (ii) seems to be more likely. The explanation for a switch in voicing would obviously be the analogy with house haʊshouses ˈhaʊzɪz (which is pretty general among native speakers, though Scots seem often to have the regularized ˈhaʊsɪz).
Although house is the only stem in s which switches voicing for the plural in this way, the “minor rule” involved applies to a fair number of stems in voiceless fricatives at other places: f-v in leaf—leaves, wife—wives, sheaf—sheaves etc, θ-ð in oath—oaths, truth—truths, mouth–mouths, and less reliably in path—paths, bath—baths; moth—moths in AmE but not BrE. There are no instances of ʃ-ʒ alternation.
The labiodental cases are supported by the spelling, f-v. But this naturally does not apply to those spelt th or s.
The alternation is better supported in noun-verb pairs, where the noun has s but the verb z: use, abuse, advice/advise, loss/lose, spouse/espouse as well as house. (But only Germans think that leasing has z.)
It would be unusual for an exceptional pattern (minor rule) to be extended to new vocabulary items. That is why ˈspaʊzɪz seems worthy of comment.


  1. A few observations from a native speaker of <Br.E> who says "spaʊs" but "ˈspaʊzɪz" :

    1) I also use the "z" in both "espouse" and "espouses" ; this agrees with the OED (1933) pronunciation.

    2) In "house", I use "z" in the plural but "s" in the singular possesive ("my house's roof").

    3) I was surprised to learn from this article that only "spouse" and "house" exhibit this pattern of variation, but I agree that I cannot think of any further instances.

  2. The number of English words ending in /-aʊs/ is quite limited, isn't it?
    I wonder how the plural form of "Scouse" would be pronounced. Would /ˈskaʊsɪz/ be the only possibility, just as it is in "Scouse's"?

  3. Don't remember hearing /maʊzɪz/ for computer mice. But is there anything special about /-aʊs/ anyway?

  4. It is not only Germans who say "leasing" with a /z/. Italians do as well.

  5. @Cha006
    Do you know how you acquired the /z/ in "spouses"? Did your parents / friends use that pronunciation when you were growing up? Or was it a pattern that you generalized on the basis of "house"/"houses"?

    I think there is a small typo in your post: "without and hard evidence" -> "without anY hard evidence"

  6. The reason foreigners (not only Germans or Italians, but e.g. as I know from experience, Hungarians as well) pronounce "leasing" the way they do is because "lease" was still predominantly pronounced with a voiced fricative in English at the time "leasing" as a specialized term of commerce was borrowed by many languages. (see e.g. the earlier editions of EEPD)

  7. @Lipman

    There seem to be very few nouns in common use that end in /aʊs/. If one excludes "house" and compounds thereof such as "bathhouse", then the only ones I could find with a quick search at were grouse, louse, mouse, and spouse. Of these, I guess grouse has plural "grouse"; and louse and mouse both have mutated plurals. I'd be intrigued to know the plural of "souse" -- "pickled food".

  8. Yes, but why do or would they form a group as opposed to other nouns in /-s/ or /-Vs/?

  9. I have a question about "paths" and "baths" (and maybe "moths", too, given the possibility of the lot-cloth split): is there a relationship between the vowel variation in these words and the final voicing, in that speakers of dialects with "long" vowels are more likely to have the voiced forms? As someone without the trap-bath split, I find [paðz] feels quite strange, but if I imitate an accent with the split the voiced variant seems more natural.

  10. If you want another exception, try this link:

    At about 5:50 or so, both people pluralise staff to /stA:vz/ rather than the expected /stA:fs/ (well, I say expected; I have /stA:vz/ as the plural too, so I must mean 'expected by dictionaries').

    I've always found these voicings of /T/ and /f/ in plurals to be associated with long vowels or a preceding /l/ or /r\/; all of the examples you give have long vowels or diphthongs preceding the consonant, as does 'sloth', which you mentioned in an earlier post. It also helps explain the variation with 'bath' and 'path' (which have long vowels in SE England, but short in most other places) and 'moth' (as CLOTH-lengthening was universal in America, but not widespread elsewhere {do they have [mOTs] or [mODz] in Ireland?}), as well as the controversial 'rooves'.

    But this isn't really relevant for 'spouse', as this plural voicing for /s/ is normally limited to 'houses'. Andrew Marr is Scottish, though, and you say that Scots generally have /haUsIz/ - perhaps, when he was taught to speak RP, his pronunciation was 'corrected' to /haUzIz/, and he has hypercorrectly extended this voicing to 'spouses'.

    (sorry for the long post)

  11. To answer yp's question : no, I don't know why I use the "z" sound in "ˈspaʊzɪz"; but then I don't really "know" why I pronounce most words in the way that I do, other than to note that my parents were very particular at correcting any tendency to copy local (south-east London) pronunciation, and that at the age of 18 I spent two years or thereabouts working under the direct supervision of a well-educated older man who had what would then have been termed a marked home-counties accent (i.e., near RP).

  12. Lol, JHJ, you beat by less than a minute! Ah well, grated minds think alike!

  13. Contrary to Sturtevant's law, analogy does sometimes operate irregularly to produce irregularities, as in the handful of "wrong-way" conversions of weak English verbs to strong: dug < digged, stuck < sticked (through conflation with steek, stuck, a separate verb of similar meaning), regionally twug < twigged.

    Outside the standard dialect, we have dole < dealt, glode < glided (the original strong form was glid), skun < skinned.

  14. David Marjanović6 November 2009 at 00:41

    Isn't built another example? The Authorized Version of the Bible and various 19th-century inscriptions on buildings have builded.

    glided (the original strong form was glid)

    Glided has always sounded strange to me...


    This kind of thing also occurs in German, where, to the chagrin of prescriptivists, winken* now often has the past participle gewunken instead of gewinkt. (Probably limited to people whose native/underlying dialects lack the past tense.)

    * I bet it's cognate with English wink, but it means "to wave" (the hand gesture).


    I wonder if the singular moth rather than the voiced plural is innovative. The German cognate is, as far as I can see, Motte; from that, we should expect /d/ in English, or /ð/ in case something like the Late Old English Stop-Fricative Alternation has struck (as it did in father), but not /θ/. (I can't think of any factors internal to German that could have messed with this correspondence.)

  15. In the East Midlands (UK) when I was young the word [feɪs] had the plural [feɪzəz] for some speakers.

  16. Then there's the tendency to lenition in some accents or with some individual people.

  17. @ Bebedora
    Do Irish people have mO:Ts or mO:Dz?
    As far as I can gather, the use of THOUGHT instead of LOT in this and a few other words is only an eastern phenomenon in the country: Dublin (definitely) and other Leinster accents, as well as south Ulster (according to Harris 1985). I'm practically certain such speakers use /T/, given that /T/ is generally a plosive and not a fricative in southern Ireland. Furthermore, Irish people say baths etc. as ba(:)Ts.
    Daniel McCarthy.

  18. You mention that EPD doesn't give the -z pronunciation of 'spouse'. It's interesting to see that OED has the -z pron as first choice. I agree with you that it's very much a minority pron.

  19. Yes I too was transfixed by the pronunciation ˈspaʊzɪz used in that programme by Andrew Marr and Harriet Harman (for it was she, not Jacqui Smith). Andrew Marr started this topic with this pronunciation, and like Bebedora above I immediately thought it was a Scottish hypercorrection by analogy with 'houses'. As for HH, I thought at the time that she was following his lead, not wanting to be so un-PC as to appear to correct his pronunciation, and therefore was trying to compromise by voicing the z a good bit less enthusiastically than Marr. But she did seem to keep this up for the duration. I have checked this on BBC iPlayer (, from 51.20 mins. I would be interested if anyone cared to check this out.

    The thing about labiodental cases is the extent to which they in fact are supported by the spelling, f-v. I have been freaked out by Bebdora's stɑːvz before, and I regret to reminisce that my Bayko building set had 'rooves', and that is how the Prince of Wales pronounces the word, but I doubt if any dictionary acknowledges the existence of that.
    Lipman may find some entertainment value in my pronunciation ˈmaʊsɪz (as a ˈhaʊzɪz person) when computer mice first came in, and it seemed to me that the standard plural was not ordained for the computer.
    For θ/ð I think JHJ 's point about the relationship between the vowel variation in these words and the final voicing is a safer bet than the long vowels or diphthongs that Bebedora focuses on, as the 'variation' is not specific with respect to length. These determining factors work well enough in BrE but my impression is that they have no real parallel in AmE: I hear both [mɑðz] and [mɒðz] for 'moths' from US speakers. And the former is for 'maths' in Ulster (with of course allophonic lengthening of the ɑ), which as someone who does have the trap-bath split, I find a bit of an eye-opener.

  20. mallamb: [ɒ] is a very uncommon vowel in AmE. Probably you heard [ɔ] ~ [ɔ:] (remember that length isn't phonemic to Americans) in moths. That would be the expected outcome for people like me (THOUGHT=CLOTH, LOT=PALM), whereas [ɑ] appears in the speech of those of us who merge all four.

  21. No John, [ɒ] is a very common vowel in AmE phonetically speaking. Of course I heard what is usually transcribed as [ɔ] ~ [ɔ:], but this is a perverse transcription phonetically speaking. Very far from Cardinal, and so open and unrounded that to an Englishman it sounds more like [ɑ], which I know appears in the speech of those of you who merge all four. My point is that even with that vowel you do get [mɑðz] with voicing in Am. Obviously you get it in [mɒðz], which following lexicographical conventions based on perceived parallels with BrE you think of as having [ɔ] or [ɔ:]. I suppose it wasn't clear that Iam a BrE speaker but I did say "I hear both [mɑðz] and [mɒðz] for 'moths' from US speakers." Because that is what I hear, as a Br phonetician.

    I did remember that length isn't phonemic to Americans, and that is why I didn't mark it!

  22. Indeed on closer inspection I see I even say "the 'variation' is not specific with respect to length." And this is my whole purpose in introducing the AmE examples. I also say that [mɑðz] for 'maths' in Ulster likewise has merely allophonic lengthening of the ɑ.

    Thanks for your interest. I have also gone a bit further into your rebuttal of JW's "I think everyone probably pronounces hole-y identically with wholly": For me it's not purely a matter of gemination.

  23. Shige: "Scouse" in its plural form would be rare as it is a mass noun when referring to the dish, and otherwise usually refers one specific dialect and accent. Incidentally, if it were ever said out loud, a speaker of this particular dialect would pronounce it /ˈskaʊsɪz/.

  24. I can't agree that except when referring to the dish 'Scouse' usually refers to one specific dialect and accent. Shige is presumably curious about the noun's use to refer to a native speaker of it or native of Liverpool, and I share his curiosity. I don't in the least see why the plural form would be rare in that sense, and therefore am dismayed to find that I don't know what that plural form is.

    In the case of 'spouse', the singular with /z/ seemed so unusual to me that hearing it with a Scottish accent (albeit a light one) I at once jumped to the conclusion that it was the hypercorrection we discussed above. I have always been aware of that singular, but have heard it so little I thought it was quite simply wrong, and was taken aback by JW's report of many dictionaries recognizing it. But if he had said that of /skaʊz/ I would have been shaken rigid, as I'm sure I have never heard that at all.

    Similarly I am sure we have never heard 'Scouses' with a /z/ either, so why do we never seem to have heard it with an /s/ either?

    I can only suppose we must have done, but interpreted it as 'Scousers'. Perhaps that's even a suppletive plural. JW recognizes as consistent with RP the apparently increasing use of schwa in plurals like 'Scouses', but I don't have that, and would be afraid that to pronounce it /ˈskaʊsɪz/ would mark me as ignorant of this suppletive plural!

    But I'm pretty sure I have used 'Scousers' all unaware of this cop-out.

    Sorry to be such a hopeless informant, Shige, but it cuts both ways, you know. I can't tell you how many times Japanese informants have said to me 慣用としか説明できないなあ!

  25. You've raised an interesting point about suppletive plurals there mallamb. Through common usage in speech and print "scousers" is the accepted plural of "scouser". Owing to this I would say you have never mis-interpreted "scouses*" as "scousers" but have heard correctly every time ;)

    I find it interesting how some adjectives of nationality are also used unchanged as nouns to describe the people, whereas others are not. Compare:

    British- a Briton, two Britons
    German- a German, two Germans
    Italian- an Italian, two Italians

  26. Even more interesting that knowing this particular adjective is in fact used unchanged as a noun to describe the people, alongside the noun Scouser, one doesn't notice that one both hears and uses only one of the plurals they could reasonably be expected to have!

  27. I'm intrigued. I have never come across "scouse" being used as a noun to describe a person, only as an adjective:
    "He is Scouse." as opposed to "He is a Scouse."*
    Compare: "He is English." vs. "He is an English."*
    I'd love to know where you've seen or heard the latter form.

  28. Well I've checked all the dictionaries, and they mostly have it either primarily or only as a noun!

    I'm really really sorry about this, but the θ~ð thing is still preying on my mind. I've been aware of the correlation of voicing with length of nuclear elements most of my life, even with CLOTH-lengthening in old RP, duly correlated with voicing in the plural, and whatever someone on here was saying recently about it being universal in AmE, it certainly wasn't in BrE.

    So Bebedora, when you say "I've always found these voicings of /T/ and /f/ in plurals to be associated with long vowels or a preceding /l/ or /r\/; all of the examples you give have long vowels or diphthongs preceding the consonant, as does 'sloth', which you mentioned in an earlier post" I find it hard to imagine being unfazed by the fact that JW reports (Thursday, 9 July 2009) that a science writer several times pronounced sloths as sləʊðz on the BBC R4 programme Home Planet. You even seem to be implying that you do this yourself.

    But Merriam-Webster does say "plural sloths \with ths or thz\. This is not very helpful because for the singular it gives \ˈslȯth, ˈsläth also ˈslōth\, whereas it lists all the plurals \ˈbathz, ˈbaths, ˈbäthz, ˈbäths\ for \ˈbath, ˈbäth\. If this seems quaintly conservative for AmE, so no doubt will the fact that it only gives \ˈmȯth\ for 'moth', with due punctilio giving \ˈmȯthz, ˈmȯths\ for the plural.

    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language on the other hand gives the same values as M-W for the singular of sloth, but no help with the plural. And it does give the two values we discussed above for the vowel of 'moth' in the singular and again punctiliously lists all the combinations of these with θs and ðz in the plural. It all seems to confirm my impression that that the variance is not in fact dependent on either length or quality in AmE.

  29. Mallamb: You say "I've checked all the dictionaries, and they mostly have it [scouse] either primarily or only as a noun!"

    OK, but as a noun meaning what? A person, or the dish? It's not under dispute that "scouse" CAN be a noun, but I agree with the anonymous poster - I have always heard "scouser", and never "scouse", as the singular noun for a Liverpudlian.

    Now, I could easily have misheard plural "scouses" as "scousers", but that would imply a singular "scouse" (=Liverpudlian) which I have never knowingly heard, unless I mishear it as "scouser" every time.

  30. The 'Scouse' we were talking about at that point was obviously the one meaning a person.

    If there was anything you could more reasonably have picked up on it was "I've checked all the dictionaries", which was also less than clinically accurate!

    But why don't you check them yourself?

  31. OK - my old Chambers does give the meaning "native of Liverpool"; so does AHD, while noting it's "often scouser"; and Random House and Wiktionary only give the culinary meaning.

    So Chambers and AHD show you are right that it's used in this way, and I concede the point! But it seemed a reasonable question because I had never heard "scouse" to mean "scouser" before, and neither apparently had the anon poster.

    As for your not checking "all" the dictionaries, that was clearly just a figure of speech and it would have been a low blow to pull you up on that one!

  32. Leo, I do give you most humble and hearty thanks for your eschewal of the low blow that I undoubtedly invited. But you do see that it would have been more reasonable than not checking the dictionaries first, don't you?

    I do to some extent share your suspicion of the prominence given to this use by so many dictionaries, and not only because of its fishy plurals ˈskaʊsɪz, which I agree I have never consciously heard, and ˈskaʊsəz, which I guess we would both hear as "scousers".

    Random House and Wiktionary are irrelevant since they only give the culinary meaning, which is why I didn't mention them, but I was none the less shocked by this omission.

  33. Looking in dictionaries is always a good idea, I suppose. If you're saying I should have looked before I leapt, you're probably right. (Not that dictionaries are an infallible guide to everyday usage.)

    That said, Wiktionary gives only the culinary meaning for "scouse" and only the demonymic meaning for "scouser", which I took to be a demarcation of the meanings of these two words, rather than as a simple omission of one meaning or the other. Perhaps that's just because I already use these words in the same way.

    As for Random House, I don't know.

    It may be that "scouser" as a demonym has simply overtaken "scouse" in recent years - perhaps by (somewhat false) analogy with words like "Londoner" and "New Yorker" - which would explain why neither of us can recall ever hearing plural ˈskaʊsɪz. (As you say, ˈskaʊsəz could be either.)

  34. I wonder how the plural of House in the meaning of 'an episode of the television series House, MD' is commonly pronounced. ("Did you see the last two Houses?")

    I say [haʊsɪz], and [haʊzɪz] sounds really strange in that sense, unless ironically.

  35. It would actually be wrong, wouldn't it? House the tv is a new coinage and so conforms to the general rule, whereas[haʊzɪz could only be the regular lexical item.

    So how is it different from maʊsɪz, of which I have admitted above that I thought it was the plural of the computer peripheral? I think because that sort of extended use doesnt require relexicalization as anything more than an additional alloseme.

    Conceivable it could have gone either way, though!

  36. That's that point - is the name felt to be identical with the "old" noun house or isn't it? Obviously it's felt to be something else. (By the way, it's probably not a coincidence they picked that name - I'm sure it's an allusion to Sherlock Holmes.)

    It's not different from mouses, that's what I wanted to point out. (The way of forming the irregular plurals of the words is different.)

    IOW, the irregular plural by changing between s and z and the irregular internal plural are not only not productive anymore, they aren't even productive for new meanings of the established words, where regular plurals are used that would be considered ungrammatical for the older meanings! Interesting.

  37. Those are the very things I wanted to point out too!

  38. Leo and mallamb: thanks for the interesting discussion- I think I've learned a thing or two! I eagerly await the publishing of more dictionaries which have "Scouser" and not "Scouse" as the demonym which would, as I said in my first post, reflect our perception of common usage. That said, I must admit to recently having discovered some instances of "Scouse" used in this way, inevitably in a pejorative sense. The whole thing also flags up the issue of accurate definitions of possible dialect words in standard English dictionaries, and how a thorough appreciation of phonetics might act as a bridge when "transferring" a hitherto unkown word from one (perhaps unwritten) dialect to our own brains (which presumably think in another, or indeed in an idiolect), and then on to some "standard" language as required.

  39. Daniel McCarthy: thank you :) I'd forgotten that stopped fricatives might complicate matters!

    mallamb: I'm sorry, but I'm not sure your examples are particularly relevant. Many (most?) Americans (as well as many English-speakers outside the US) do not have voicing of /T/ in the plural, which explains why all these words with long vowels have plurals without voicing as alternatives. As for 'slothz' and 'bathz', these would be perfectly reasonable plurals for Americans who have /slOT/ and [be@T] rather than /slAt/ and [b{T].

    On the other hand, if there is no connection between long vowels and the voicing of /T f/ in plurals in AmE, why do American dictionaries not have voicing in plurals as an option in cases where no accent would have a long vowel, such as 'monolith' or 'pith', or any word where /I E V/ precedes /f T/?