Thursday, May 15, 2014

When "syndrome" is a final "s"

1982 gave us the acronym AIDS formed from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. This is pronounced /eɪdz/. The fact that the final S is pronounced /z/ is notable, since a final s is typically pronounced /s/ (e.g., bus) unless it is an inflectional morpheme (e.g., dogs). There are cases such as news and lens, in which a final s is pronounced /z/, but the -s in news was originally a plural morpheme. That leaves lens, which comes from the Latin word for lentil. Apparently, it was pronounced /leːns/ in Latin, so why it has a final /z/ in English is something of a mystery to me. I cannot find another example of an English noun with a final s pronounced /z/.

This brings us back to AIDS. Presumably, this final /z/ was influenced by the homographs aids, the noun, and aids, the verb. But then in 2003 we got SARS. There is no English word sar, so there is no preexisting homograph from which to analogously get /sɑɹz/, but that is the only pronunciation I've ever heard. I've never heard anyone say /sɑɹs/. So this seems to be an extension of the AIDS analogy to aids.

And now today we have MERS. On CBC's Metro Morning this morning, Matt Galloway started out pronouncing it /mɜɹs/, which initially threw me. I'd been mentally pronouncing it with a final /z/, and indeed Galloway finished up with /mɜɹz/ (I couldn't tell what the person he was interviewing was saying, but I suspect she was using the /z/ form, given his shift.)

So perhaps we have a new rule developing: acronym-final s for syndrome is pronounced /z/.

As I was looking around writing this post, it appears that at least one other person has taken note of the pronunciation of MERS.

[John Wells points out "Latin fifth-declension nouns in -es have final noninflectional /z/ in English, too: species, series... Why that should apply to MERS is a further question, which I cannot answer: but compare Mars."]


Matt_M said...

There's also (a) means (e.g. of transport), glans, sans, gens, Thames, and Algiers.

In fact, I'm not sure I can think of any word in English where an (orthographic) final -s is pronounced /s/ rather than /z/ if that sound would directly follow a voiced consonant, whether the -s is a suffix or not.

Brett said...

It certainly seems I wasn't as careful as I had intended. I did a corpus query to look for examples, and after a few hundred, didn't turn any up. I've gone back and looked more carefully. In general, there are very few English nouns that end in a voiced consonant + s. But there are lots with vowel + s, and these are, as far as I can tell, all /s/.

Ran said...

Do proper names count? (Wells, Reynolds, Charles, Holmes, Babs, Diggs, Reeves, etc.)

How about Latinisms? (mens rea, vas deferens.)

I'm inclined to agree with 'me': I can't think of any English words in /-Xs/ where X is a voiced consonant.

Q Higuchi said...

This is a tricky one. I think AIDS had no choice - the final consonant cluster could only have been /dz/; you can't really have /ds/ which is simply hard (or maybe awkward?) to pronounce. The same goes with /bs/, /gs/, /vs/, /ms/ etc. It is not impossible, but it just doesn't cut it.

Incidentally, the final consonant cluster in 'cloths' is either voiceless+voiceless or voiced+voiced. The easier the better, I guess.

With SARS, you had things like 'Mars', 'cars' etc. to model on. If it were spelled SARSS, you would easily have a final /s/. With MERS, there is room for variation.

So, it looks like these acronyms aren't all that special; they seem to be just as (un)predictable as other countless words in English.

Brett said...

So why would, say plosive /s/ be out of the question, but not liquid /s/ (e.g., else, purse)? Why is /ns/ (e.g., dance) OK but not /ms/?

Q Higuchi said...

I am afraid things are a little messier than that. With /ls/ (as in 'else'), there is a fair degree of devoicing on the /l/; indeed, some speakers will pronounce it with an intervening /t/, resulting in /lts/. Ditto for 'dance', where many will say /-nts/.

Etymologically, 'glimpse' did not have the 'p' there; today, the word is supposed to be pronounced either as /-ms/ or /-mps/. So is /ms/ allowed? - yes, sort of.

This leaves 'purse' - but I believe this is a 'vowel + s' sequence rather than /rs/. I personally don't pronounced the 'r' there, so the final /s/ simply makes the preceding vowel shorter. Even with a r-coloured vowel, the same would apply.

I wish I could say something clear, clean & clever - but I can't. The admirable _Longman Pronunciation Dictionary_ (2nd ed) briefly discusses the pronunciation of a final s, adding: 'Beyond this, there is no rule: each word must be considered separately' (p.704). How encouraging.