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I have seen that many times, a German word is spelled with an "s", but it is read like an English "z".

Moreover, every time this happens, the Dutch cognate word is spelled with a "z". (But not the English and Scandinavian cognate words).


SÜD (Dutch: zuid, English: south, Swedish: syd)

SÜSS (Dutch: zoet, English: sweet, Swedish: söt)

SEIN (Dutch: zijn)

SIE (Dutch: zij)

SO (Dutch: zo, English: so, Swedish: så)

SIEBEN (Dutch: zeven, English: seven, Swedish: sju)

...et cetera.

What happened, linguistically speaking? Why, and when?

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In south parts of Germany and in Austria all those words are pronounced with the phonem that is written as "s" in english (stimmloses s). In Austria and southern Germany the "s" in the words »Last« and »Wiese« are equal. Only in northern parts of Germany the s in »Wiese« (and all your examples) is spoken like english "z". –  Hubert Schölnast Apr 19 '14 at 15:29
@HubertSchölnast, sind in diesen südlichen Dialekten dann reisen und reißen homophon? –  Carsten Schultz Apr 19 '14 at 18:23
@HubertSchölnast Low German has always been very similar to Dutch in that respect. So this makes a lot of sense! –  geodude Apr 19 '14 at 18:47
@CarstenSchultz 1. Ich habe nicht von Dialekten gesprochen, sondern von Hochdeutsch (die Sprache, die Nachrichtensprecher in Radio und Fernsehen verwenden). 2. In "reisen" ist der Diphthong "ei" lang, in "reißen" ist er kurz. Das ist ein deutlich hörbarer Unterschied. Aber die beiden s (bzw. ß) werden von Nachrichtensprechern in München, Innsbruck und Wien gleich ausgesprochen. –  Hubert Schölnast Apr 19 '14 at 18:51
Hubert Schölnast is right. I live in southern Germany and never speak s as /z/. But one can hear speakers, eg on the radio, who speak sieben with /z/. In my pronunciation reisen and reißen sound alike. –  rogermue Apr 20 '14 at 8:57

3 Answers 3

This is not restricted to s, it also happens for p, t, k, f resp. b, d, g, w (and I think v needs extra rules in the first place). The Wikipedia article states the rules between this switch between the lenis/fortis-variants in detail, and says this is a "typical phenomenon in German". To make things even more confusing, it works differently in different dialects.

The article also traces those different pronouniations for s to different consonants in the Althochdeutsch, but doesn't explain anything in depth, and doesn't explain the other consonants. So that maybe explains "when", though not "why".

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And English has a similar phenomenon wrt. the voiced/voiceless pronounciation of th. –  dirkt Apr 19 '14 at 18:28

It happens when the letter 's' comes before a vowel except at the end of the word. And of course the double 's' is also pronounced like the English 's'.

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In Standard High German (other than some southern dialects of German) [z] (voiced alveolar fricative) is an allophone of [s] (voiceless alveolar fricative) when it occurs in the onset of a syllable, that is you will never find a [s] in the beginning of a (phonological) word. Since this is a universal phonological „rule“ it is not necessary to encode this in spelling. This may be different in Dutch: Dutch orthography may simply be closer to phonology (one grapheme ~ one phone) than German orthography is (one grapheme ~ one phoneme). Or if they lack this allophony then they are right to encode differneces in meaning by different spelling.

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