"Hard" vs. "soft" sibilants
September 7, 2023 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Consider the pair of words (1a) mace, (1b) maze, as well as the pair (2a) zing, (2b) sing. Each pair has a single difference in sound. In each pair, would it occur to you to call one of the sounds "hard" and the other "soft" (or, if it wouldn't occur to you naturally, would you nevertheless have a strong instinct about which was which if someone else used those terms)? If so, which word in each pair has the "hard" sound?

Please note: I know the terms linguists would use instead of "hard" and "soft"; no need to mention those or to explicate the distinction. This question is about folk usage.
posted by aws17576 to Writing & Language (31 answers total)
I automatically hear the c and s as SOFT and the z as HARD.
posted by mmf at 11:33 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]

Same here
posted by atlantica at 11:36 AM on September 7

S sound is soft. z sound is harder than S. I mean it's not a super-hard sound, but it's harder than S for sure.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:40 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]

I would call all of them soft. If I really think about it I guess that to my ear "z" is most soft. So the opposite of what the other people have said so far. I would assume someone else meant that c/s=hard and z=soft. Maybe because zzzzzz=sleeping and sleeping=soft in my brain somehow?

This is mildly interesting, thanks for asking.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 11:41 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]

I can see describing the "s" as "soft" but it wouldn't occur to me to describe "z" as "hard". I think sibilants live in a "soft" place in my brain. Plosives like "t", "d", and "k" are "hard", if I were coming at this question from another direction.
posted by wormtales at 11:45 AM on September 7

Response by poster: Let me toss in one more word pair for consideration: (3a) lacy, (3b) lazy. (Thanks for all the answers so far!)
posted by aws17576 at 11:52 AM on September 7

I am completely opposite the previous answers. S hard, Z is soft. I think about the muscles in my face and the strength of the air that is expelled.
S uses tight muscles and a strong burst of air - hard. . For Z, just relax all the muscles and breathe slowly - soft.
posted by CathyG at 11:57 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]

I'm along the same lines as wormtales - if you said "which one is hard and which one is soft" I would mark s as soft and z as hard, but I wouldn't automatically thing to describe the z as hard without that framing.

For lacy and lazy I would still think the z is harder but that doesn't feel like as clear a distinction to me.
posted by brilliantine at 11:57 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]

What you're looking for is "unvoiced" vs. "voiced". Say "sing" and then say "zing".

You're forming them exactly the same way in your mouth, but with "zing" you are vibrating your vocal cords -- "voiced". Say it carefully and you can feel your teeth vibrate with "zing", but they don't with "sing".

Other unvoiced/voiced pairs:

time / dime

fan / van

came / game
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:07 PM on September 7 [6 favorites]

Sorry, to answer your actual question though:

I don't think I would call your examples soft vs. hard. Hard "c" (cat) and soft "c" (cease) is just an orthographic difference.
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:11 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

It's all about the angles of the letters.

Z = angles = hard

S = no angles = soft

Lager = soft
Lacer = soft
Later = hard
Laker = hard
Lazer = hard (this is a special case, it's spelled Laser, which you might think is soft, but pronounced Lazer, so it's hard)

This is why people don't like it when you type in all caps. IT'S VERY HARD ON THE EYES. Lowercase is softer on the eyes because it has proportionally fewer angles.


Edited to add: This is why X is the most XTREME letter of all. Nothing but angles.
posted by Jawn at 12:24 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]

Ssssss is the sound of a balloon deflating—soft. Zzzzz is the sound of a buzzsaw whirring—hard.
posted by ejs at 12:31 PM on September 7

I would call them both soft. Hard would be for a "k" sound (hard c versus soft c sounds I guess). Maybe the "z" is the soft form of "d"? I don't know about that but z wouldn't be hard unless it was the first z in pizza.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:32 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

If you gave me the pair of sounds and told me definitively that one was soft and one hard, I'd guess correctly. Without that information I definitely would not guess.

I'm familiar with "soft" meaning "palatalised" because that's how it's used in Russian (including colloquially), but I found that equally unintuitive when I first encountered it.

If anything, I'd think that plosive consonants would be hard and everything else would be soft.
posted by quacks like a duck at 12:41 PM on September 7

It would not occur to me to describe one as "hard" and the other as "soft". If I were trying to describe the difference, I think I would say that the "z" in "maze" is the "c" in "mace" while humming.

If someone asked me "Assume one is hard and the other is soft; now which one's which?", I would think they meant the "z" is "hard" (and I would disagree with the fundamental assumption of the question, as neither is "hard" to me (and really, I'm not even sure if either of them is "soft" to me)).
posted by Flunkie at 1:01 PM on September 7

Sing soft soothing songs, so slowly send someone sweet sleeping...

Zesty zebras zigzag zealously, zipping, zapping, zooming zenithwards...
posted by protorp at 1:21 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

I'm with CathyG, but my wife is the opposite!
posted by mpark at 1:36 PM on September 7

Here's another vote for Z = hard, S = soft.

Also, I've previously heard the terms "hard" & "soft" applied to the letter C, specifically C as in "cat" is hard but C as in "Cecil" is soft. As you can see, the soft-C is also the classic S sound so I'm not sure how much of that is influencing my vote.
posted by mhum at 2:00 PM on September 7

No, I hear hissing and buzzing, not hardness and softness.

I'd also describe the difference between M and N as nasal.

To me the terms hard and soft are relatively random choices when used to describe sounds. Someone long ago thought of that binary first when they needed to describe something. They could have just as easily fallen on male and female, or weak and strong, or wide and narrow. We ended up with hard and soft, but only because someone made that choice long ago and it became the standard.
posted by Jane the Brown at 2:01 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

I've seen "hard/soft" for stops vs fricatives: hard C = [k], soft C = [s], hard G = [g], soft G = [dʒ].

And yes, hard/soft are used in teaching Russian for unpalatalized/palatalized.

I think this thread perfectly demonstrates why it'd be confusing to use the words to refer to voicing!

(Also, to be pedantic, there are two differences between mace and maze for many English speakers: the voicing, and vowel length. The vowel is held for a noticeably longer time in maze.)
posted by zompist at 2:45 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

As a linguist, I am loving this. Thanks.
posted by os tuberoes at 3:14 PM on September 7

I would say S is soft, and Z is zoft.
posted by ShooBoo at 3:52 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]

I changed my mind three times while thinking it through, so I don’t think one or the other feels like much of a default, but that does mean that if someone described one or the other as soft or hard I’d be able to follow that convention.

(In case it’s helpful, some things I thought about: S is a softer letter shape. A “soft C” has an S sound.

On the other hand, S sound is louder/less gentle to my ear than a Z, which is a quiet enough sound that my crummy hearing sometimes misses it in a word. The S waveform is spikier than a Z.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:01 PM on September 7

Wouldn’t naturally use these terms, but having to choose, I chose Z as soft because of how a ‘soft g’ (ginger) has a z sound in it (dz, see zompist’s post above).
posted by lokta at 5:53 PM on September 7

Response by poster: Thanks, this was a really interesting set of answers!

In case anyone is curious, the question was inspired by a conversation with my mother, in which she lowkey dropped that she believed "Santa Claus" rhymes with loss and not laws. That could've led to its own Ask MeFi post, but I was able to convince her without the internet's help that her perception of the pronunciation "Santa Claus" was at the very least unusual. (Though there's an interesting series of posts on Language Log about real vs. imagined pronunciation of versus vs. verses which gave me some appreciation of how someone could hear "Santa Claus" all their life and imagine that it rhymes with loss.)

Anyway, what I found more interesting was that she described the [s] in loss as a "hard snakelike sound", as opposed to the [z] sound in laws, which she considered "soft". This went against my immediate intuitions, but made sense once I thought about it (a hiss does feel more forceful to me than a buzz, both in production and perception). This got me curious what other people would say. I included three word pairs in the question in case it mattered whether the sounds were at the beginning, end, or middle, but this doesn't appear to have mattered to anyone. (I find that the difference in effort needed to pronounce lacy and lazy is particularly pronounced, so to speak -- but maybe I'm being sneakily influenced by the semantics of those words...)

Really interesting to me that multiple comments reference letter shapes! I would never have thought of that, but you know what, K and B might just be the most kiki and bouba letters, glyphwise, in the Roman alphabet. What the hell.
posted by aws17576 at 6:12 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

Your mom is 100% correct. Growing up in Connecticut, Santa Claus did indeed rhyme with loss (and las, as in Las Vegas). Santa “Claws” was something obviously foreign to us, probably spoken by the weirdos from New Jersey that pronounced orange as “are-enge”.
posted by not just everyday big moggies at 6:47 PM on September 7

Claus == louse. Not 'loss' nor 'laws'. Depending on where you're from I guess... :)
posted by zengargoyle at 4:53 AM on September 8

Google says there's a history of German immigration to Connecticut, which would make sense, because the German pronunciation of "aus" rhymes with "louse" as described by zengargoyle.

As in the name "Klaus".
posted by quacks like a duck at 10:57 AM on September 8

In the mace vs. maze type example, I kind of go back and forth as to which I might think is harder or softer. I can understand why other people might see it one way or the other but I just don't have a strong opinion of my own.

I'll put out another similar example, though: kill vs gill.

To me, the un-voiced k is clearly much harder than the voiced g, which I hear as quite soft in comparison.

Re: the closs vs clawz pronunciations of Santa Claus, and the pronunciation of versus vs verses, the first interesting point is that German - and, I presume, a number of closely related languages - have a strong tendency to de-voice final consonants. And that is a very prominent audible characteristic of people who speak English with a German accent. So something like Claus would always have an un-voiced final s for those speakers. Add to that, Claus is actually a rather common and ordinary German name and it is absolutely never pronounced claws.

That sort of favored pronounciation tends to linger generationally and become part of the local dialect, so it's not surprise that is the most common way to think of it in a lot of part of the U.S.

Flip side of this is, things like voiced vs un-voiced s tend to shift a lot in real speech. Like, if I pronounced versus and verses carefully and in isolation - say I'm pronouncing words for a spelling bee - then I would definitely end versus with un-voiced s and verses with voiced s.

But in real speech, this gets really mixed up. What comes before and, particularly, after the voiced/unvoiced sound has a huge impact on whether that final linking consonant is voiced or not.

Try saying these sentences out loud:
  • Santa Claus caught a naughty elf
  • Santa Claus got a nice train set for his birthday
Almost certainly, you made the s before caught un-voiced and voiced the s before got - unless you were really making a point to do otherwise.

Alternatively, if your dialect strongly prefers the un-voiced s in Claus, you might have also de-voiced the g in got, pronouncing it much closer to a c or k sound.

We have a nice clear idea in our heads about which words should have voiced and un-voiced consonants, and where. But in real speech it gets really, really mixed up.

Yet, somehow we are able to decode it, all the same.

And just for fun, trying saying these:
  • Toronto versus Zanzibar (trying to pronounce versus "properly" with an un-voiced final s)
  • Toronto verses Cincinatti (trying to pronounce verses properly with a voiced final se)
To make that un-voiced s to voiced s transition (or the reverse, voiced s to unvoiced s) you have to really over-enunciate and then also put a distinct stop or pause between the two words.

It's possible to speak that way, but hardly anyone ever does in real life. Among other things, it makes you sound like a pompous asshole . . .

Relating that back to lacy vs. lazy - it's possible to clearly differentiate the two, but then saying lacy involves a voiced a, unvoiced c, and voiced y in VERY quick succession. This is difficult to do and to accomplish it with clarity almost demands over-enunciating it. So it kind of does take some serious oral gymnastics to pull off.

Whereas lazy is one continual stream of uninterrupted voicing - nothing comes close to interrupting that continual stream of breath. It really is an example of linguistic iconicity - though whether by design or mere chance is debatable.
posted by flug at 2:02 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]

BTW Language Log is not loading for me today for some reason. In case anyone else is having the same problem, here is an archive.org link to the versus v. verses article.
posted by flug at 2:05 PM on September 8

My brain processes the s sound as distinct, and the z as diffuse. To translate that into the offered dichotomy, that would make the s the hard one of the two, I suppose, if hardness equates to a perceptibility of the edges. Is harmony softer than melody?

(fwiw, I consider hard and soft to be subjective adjectives, depending so heavily on the context and framing of the user. In some circumstances, there's a hint of yuk/yum, sometimes rigid/pliable, dangerous/safe, known/unknown, difficult/easy, committed/tentative, authoritative/cooperative. There are so many frames to interpret hard/soft through!)
posted by droomoord at 5:15 AM on September 9

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