The story of /z/ and /s/, and their relationship with /n/

If we teachers understand the inside connections between sounds, we are better able to guide our learners to make the same physical connections. It helps us to see the whole thing as one gestalt, not multiple individual, disconnected sounds. And that’s what The Inside Story of Sounds is about. So, this time let’s take an inside look at /s/. Start by saying it and noticing the following physical facts:

1.. /s/ is unvoiced, so even if you whisper it…. it sounds just the same. Try it both aloud and whispered …. is there any difference…?

2.. You can continue this sound, because it is produced by continuous friction of air rather than a stop and release.

3.. This friction is produced by two surfaces coming close together. Which two surfaces?  1) the tongue (the top bit just behind the tip, known as the blade)  and 2) the tooth ridge behind the top front teeth (alveolar ridge)

4.. Notice that when you say /s/ the blade of your tongue is a precise distance from the alveolar ridge. What happens when you make the gap less? The sound stops because air can no longer escape between tongue and tooth ridge. Try it. What happens if you make the gap more than /s/ requires? Again the sound disappears and you find yourself simply exhaling….! Try that too.

5.. To prove the air is not coming through your nose, say /s/and /z/ and pinch your nose! Unlike /n/ which would stop, /s/ and /z/ simply carry on…

6.. Now, if you voice the /s/ you get /z/. And if you draw out each sound and alternate them quite slowly like this, without stopping in between /s s s s s /z z z z z /s s s s s /z z z z z / you can actually sense your vocal cords starting up each time you hit /z/. Try this a few times.

7.. The next thing to notice is that voicing is not the only difference between /z/ and /s/. Even when you whisper the two words sue and zoo you may detect that the first sound in each is not quite the same. If you put your hand against your open lips you may feel a stronger puff of air for sue, because unvoiced consonants in English use more air, in this sense they are stronger (fortis). Voiced consonants like /z/ pass less air (they are gentle, lenis) since some of that air pressure is required further upstream to power the vocal cords.

It is more important to sense the truth of all this with your body, than to know a disembodied theory. Then you can really be a guide for your students.

Now moving to /n/, the subject of episode 1

8… Take the internal posture of /n/ but don’t say it and don’t exhale, just notice where your tongue is… and now instead of saying /n/ say /z/ and you find that the position is the same (tongue and tooth ridge) but the action is different. For /n/ the tongue against tooth ridge stops the airflow and diverts it through the nose. For /s/, the airflow is not blocked, just restricted, and through the mouth. Do the same with /s/

These three sounds come from the same position. Yet you get three sounds for the price of one because the position is exploited in three slightly different ways, yielding three different consonants.

Experiencing these relationships between sounds help students and teachers  to see and feel how sounds are made from the inside, and this translates into confidence and competence.

Next: Why do  /t/ and /d/ join the trio of /n/ /z/ and /s/  ???

What do they have in common? Does this mean 5 sounds for the price of 1?  A bargain for learners?

All this and more in Episode 3!!!