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It is very common to unvoice consonant sounds appearing last in a word.

  • die Hand -- /hant/ -- d → /t/
  • der Tag -- /taːk/ -- g → /k/
  • der Staub -- /ʃtaʊp/ -- b → /p/

This sometimes happens with consonant sounds at the end of a syllable that does not end the word, but not always.

  • die Handlung -- /handlʊŋ/ -- d → /d/
  • der Handschuh -- /hantʃuː/ -- d → /t/

  • agieren -- /aɡiːʀən/ -- g → /g/

  • der Tagfalter -- /taːkfaltɐ/ -- g → /k/

  • das Objekt -- /ɔpjɛkt/ -- b → /p/

  • obligatorisch -- /ɔbliɡatoːʀɪʃ/ -- b → /b/

When are consonant sounds at the end of a coda unvoiced?

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Nice question! Since I'm a native German speaker this is one of the things I've never really been aware of. –  splattne Jun 3 '11 at 9:45
    
Please note, in the time I went to school, the sixties, there where book by Duden Verlag, describing such rules, but in praxis it was not part of the lessons and deviations in use where tolerated and not even particularly noticed. I dare say such rules are a bit academic. –  bernd_k Jun 3 '11 at 9:45
    
@bernd_k: I realise that a few "mistakes" are not really noted, but I think that such discussions can still yield helpful insights for a learner (and interesting trivia for a native). –  Tim N Jun 3 '11 at 9:46
    
@bernd_k: Do you know which book it was? I only found Das Aussprachewörterbuch, which (from its title) seems to list pronunciation for specific words, not general rules. –  Tim N Jun 3 '11 at 9:49
    
@tim But you admit the difference in quality between orthographic rules and these ones. The first have severe impact on the school-leaving qualifications, while the second has rather little? –  bernd_k Jun 3 '11 at 9:52
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3 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The OP seems to have a good background in syllable structure, but I'll give some background in that for those who might not.

This phenomenon is known as final obstruent devoicing. An obstruent is a consonant made by constricting airflow. In German, the relevant ones are (in IPA):

  • stops (a.k.a. plosives): /b,p/ /d,t/ /g,k/
  • fricatives: /v,f/ /z,s/ /ʒ,ʃ/

Each of the pairs above represent consonants that have the same place and manner of articulation; the consonants differ only in whether they are voiced or not. The voiced consonants are on the left and the voiceless counterparts are on the right.

When a voiced consonant becomes devoiced, it changes into its voiceless counterpart (e.g. /d/ -> [t]). Depending on the language, this can happen in a variety of different contexts. In German, the process is final obstruent devoicing because it occurs (always and only) in the syllable coda, i.e. the end of a syllable.

Since this process applies at the end of syllables, it becomes very important to be able to break down a German word into syllables; to do so, one must understand German phonotactics and be aware of morphological boundaries.

Phonotactics

At the beginnings and ends of words, the final consonants are always clustered together in a group. Therefore, you can always say that e.g. "d" at the end of a word is pronounced [t]. Word-internally, however, complex consonant clusters will make use of the surrounding vowels to break up the cluster (when possible, clusters must obey the sonority rules for that language) — it is basically taking the path of least resistance to articulating the word. For example:

- "Land"    [lant]     ([nt] cluster; one syllable, no choice)
- "Landes"  [lan.dəs]  (/d/ can move to following vowel)

- "sag"     [zak]      (one syllable, no choice; must be in coda)
- "sagen"   [za.gən]   (/g/ can move to following vowel, stay voiced)
- "sagten"  [zak.tən]  (/t/ in the way, so /g/ stays in coda and gets devoiced)

Word Boundaries

Oftentimes, a word is made up of two or more words; in these situations, the syllabification rules I stated in the last section do not apply.

Thus, compound words will not allow resyllabification across word boundaries:

- "Hand"       [hant]          (one syllable, no choice)
- "Hände"      [hɛn.də]        (/d/ moves to vowel [ə], stays voiced)
- "Handarbeit" [hant.ar.baɪt]  (/d/ cannot cross word boundary, gets devoiced)

- "aber"       [a.bɐ]          (/b/ goes to following vowel)
- "ab"         [ap]            (/b/ must get devoiced to [p])
- "abändern"   [ap.ɛn.dɐn]     (/b/ still gets devoiced because of the boundary)

Special Case: Handlung

In your examples, you bring up a really great special case: Handlung. According to the rules laid out, the word is syllabified thusly:

/hand.lʊŋ/

It should therefore undergo devoicing:

[hant.lʊŋ]

But it doesn't. What's special about this word?

Note that there are other exceptions like this (examples from Zamma 1996):

  • ebnen
  • Gegner
  • eignen
  • neblig
  • regnerisch

Notice what all of these words have in common? They are all words whose stems took suffixes that, in turn, caused a vowel to drop out:

  • handeln + ung
  • eben + en
  • gegen + er
  • eigen + en
  • Nebel + ig
  • Regen + er (+ isch)

Note that the vowel is crucial in syllabification and devoicing. Why does the vowel drop out? Because, if you imagine the intermediate word with the vowel intact, the first syllable gets main stress, the final syllable gets secondary stress, and the middle vowel, the "e", is just a tiny unstressed schwa sound that ends up disappearing altogether. At least, in writing it is deleted. But the voicing of the consonant in these words suggests that there is merely a nearly-gone schwa vowel that is very short, but still maintains the voicing contrast of these words.

Incidentally, reduction of unstressed schwa to nothing or nearly nothing occurs in many languages, including English: e.g. frighten/frightening. In English, the "e" vowel is simply not deleted in writing (at least not all the time).

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Wow, great answer! –  Samuel Herzog Jun 3 '11 at 15:37
1  
Interesting! Dutch writes and actually pronounces all of those schwas: handelen, verevenen, etc. It strikes me that this phenomenon (only? mainly?) occurs with pairs of stop + liquid/nasal consonant. Is it that this schwa was for some reason dropped only from those combinations? Or was it actually introduced into those combinations for ease of pronunciation in the first place? My guess would be the latter: those nasals and liquids were probably vocalized from PIE (semi-)consonants, and the resulting schwas were therefore "weaker" than those schwas that came from reduced vowels. –  Cerberus Jun 3 '11 at 15:44
    
@Cerberus: Really good observation, and you are absolutely right. The consonants you are talking about are sonorants. Notice that sonorants include the consonants as well as vowels. Since liquids and nasals are more similar to vowels than other consonants, sometimes the line between them can be blurred — sonorant consonants can be arguably syllabic (depending on the language and theoretical framework you are using). –  Kosmonaut Jun 3 '11 at 16:08
    
So whether there is a "real" schwa (or was historically) may be a matter of articulatory timing. When pronouncing "en", at what point does the vowel start to nasalize? At what point is the oral cavity totally closed off? This timing is probably different among different speakers, and probably has variation within speakers as well. –  Kosmonaut Jun 3 '11 at 16:10
    
Right, in the end it all comes down to models and frameworks! Keeping in mind that PIE /m/ and /n/ were often partially or fully vocalized as om/mo/am/ma/o/a/etc. in certain daughter languages often makes it easier to brainstorm for etymological connections, in my experience. I'd forgotten the term sonorant, a useful class. –  Cerberus Jun 3 '11 at 16:33
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Ich stimme der Antwort von ammoQ zu: Bei Auslautverhärtungen im Wortinneren handelt es sich meistens um zusammengesetzte Wörter.

Im deutschen Wiktionary steht z. B. beim Eintrag "D" (Hervorhebung von mir):

Der Buchstabe D wird im Deutschen grundsätzlich [d] ausgesprochen, am Wortende und in zusammengesetzten Wörtern am Ende eines Teilwortes aber als unbehauchtes [t] (Auslautverhärtung) - außer vor stimmhaften Konsonanten (wie sollte das auch gehen?). Im Inlaut passt er sich an nachfolgende stimmlose Konsonanten an (z. B. abends [ˈaːbm̩ts])


Vielleicht noch als Ergänzung Folgendes (siehe E2). Ich rolle den Fall von hinten auf, indem ich die amtlichen Rechtschreibregeln zitiere. Unter Punkt 2.2 steht:

2.2 Auslautverhärtung und Wortausgang -ig


§23 Die in großen Teilen des deutschen Sprachgebiets auftretende Verhärtung der Konsonanten [b], [d], [],[v] und [z] am Silbenende sowie vor anderen Konsonanten innerhalb der Silbe wird in der Schreibung nicht berücksichtigt.


E1: Bei vielen Wörtern kann die Schreibung aus der Aussprache erweiterter Formen oder verwandter Wörter abgeleitet werden, in denen der betreffende Konsonant am Silbenanfang steht, zum Beispiel:

Konsonant am Silbenende usw. | Konsonant am Silbenanfang
---------------------------------------------------------------------
Lob, löblich, du lobst       | Lobes, belobigen (aber Isotop-Isotope)
trüb, trübselig, eingetrübt  | trübe, eintrüben (aber Typ – Typen)
Rad, Radumfang               | Rades, rädern (aber Rat – Rates)
absurd                       | absurde, Absurdität (aber Gurt – Gurte)
Sieg, siegreich, er siegt    | siegen (aber Musik – musikalisch)
Trug, er betrog, Betrug      | betrügen (aber Spuk – spuken)
gläubig                      | gläubige (aber Plastik – Plastiken)
Möwchen                      | Möwe (aber Öfchen – Ofen)
naiv, Naivling, Naivheit     | Naive, Naivität (aber er rief – rufen)
Preis, preislich, preiswert  | Preise (aber Fleiß – fleißig)
Haus, häuslich, behaust      | Häuser (aber Strauß – Sträuße)

E2: Bei einer kleinen Gruppe von Wörtern ist es nicht oder nur schwer möglich, eine solche Erweiterung durchzuführen oder eine Beziehung zu verwandten Wörtern herzustellen. Man schreibt sie trotzdem mit b, d, g bzw. s, zum Beispiel: ab, Eisbein (Eis – Eises), flugs (Flug), Herbst, hübsch, jeglich, Jugend, Kies (Kiesel), Lebkuchen, morgendlich, ob, Obst, Plebs (Plebejer), preisgeben, Rebhuhn, redlich (Rede), Reis (Reisig), Reis (= Korn; Reise fachsprachlich = Reissorten; aber Grieß), ihr seid (aber seit), sie sind, und, Vogt, weg (Weges), weissagen (weise)

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Handschuh and Tagfalter are composite words, so "d" resp. "g" are the last consonant of the first component.

Regarding "Objekt" and "obligatorisch", I don't pronounce the b differently. I think it's unvoice in both cases.

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Abbrechen is pronounced /ap-/. If that's a composite word, I'd say Handlung is one, too. My only pronunciation resource is Wiktionary -- perhaps its obligatorisch IPA is a mistake? –  Tim N Jun 3 '11 at 9:43
    
abbrechen is a composite word, Handlung isn't. –  ammoQ Jun 3 '11 at 9:46
    
+1 Bei Auslautverhärtung im Wortinneren ist es meist ein zusammengesetztes Substantiv. –  splattne Jun 3 '11 at 9:56
    
Bei Handlanger und Handlesen (ein fairerer Vergleich zur Handlung) würdet ihr eine Auslautverhärtung beim D machen? –  Phira Jun 3 '11 at 10:52
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The key in Handschuh and Tagfalter is that the fricatives sch and f are both unvoiced. Which carries over to the preceding consonant. Conversely, the l in Handlung is a voiced sonorant, so it would require extra effort to unvoice the d in front of it. (This is not unsimilar to how s is voiced when enclosed between two voiced sounds, e.g. between two vowels.) –  RegDwight Jun 3 '11 at 10:54
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