Voiced S

This morning on Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR reporter Mike Pesca, talking about strikeouts and curveballs, introduced the Higgs boson as a metaphor and ran it into the ground. All through this, he gave boson the accent pattern primary accent + unaccented, rather than the standard pattern primary accent + secondary accent. Along with the accent difference went the voicing of the medial fricative (spelled S); he had a medial /z/ every time, instead of the standard /s/:

standard /bósàn/, Pesca /bózǝn/

Presumably, for Pesca the word boson had become so familiar that the final syllable was deaccented, as in outsider-pronunciations of Oregon with /àn/ vs. Oregonian pronunciations with /ǝn/. And then the medial fricative got voiced, as in reason, raisin, besom, and some other words spelled with medial S. But there is a strong competing pattern, with /s/ (rather than /z/) for words that have unaccented final syllables and are spelled with medial S: mason, bosun (a minimal contrast to Pesca’s boson), basin, bison, and so on. (I’ve chosen words with tense vowels in the first syllable, to avoid the issue of spellings with medial S vs. SS.)

There are histories for each of these words, but it’s clear that synchronically the voicing isn’t determined automatically by phonological context. So I’m not sure what led to Pesca’s choice of /z/.


12 Responses to “Voiced S”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    Many news reports mentioned the Higgs Bosun quite straightforwardly.

    Since almost nobody knows what either a boson or a bosun is, and there’s that complicated bo’s’n’ spelling to confuse matters, I imagine we have at least a 5-sigma confirmation of total cluelessness, even before intervocalic defoicing.

    • Joseph F Foster Says:

      to add to Lawler’s observation, there is also the way we spell it in the Coast Guard and Navy — boatswain

  2. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    The OED gives ˈbəʊzɒn, while the NOAD has ˈbōsän.

  3. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    Further, Wikipedia gives us ˈboʊz for Amar G (the audio guy), but boʃu for Satyendra Nath (the boson guy). Which one might have thought would have influenced the American pronunciation toward /z/ and the British /s/, but at least the OED thinks the opposite.

  4. mollymooly Says:

    Oxford Dictionaries online also gives /z/ UK and /s/ US. John Wells Longman Pronouncing Dictionary give /s/ priority over /z/ in both US and UK. But none of them countenance schwa, FWIW.

  5. Steve Anderson Says:

    An interview with an Edinbugh physicist/astronomer, student and colleague of Higgs, was on NPR Wednesday afternoon. She pronounced it [bózàn] throughout. There are other UK/US z/s differences that strike me, like parse(r) — there must be a list of these somewhere.

  6. Jan Says:

    I pronounced it Pesca’s way immediately when I first read it. I’m not sure why (Iowa). I was surprised to read your comments. Pattern with ‘risen’?

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    So: there are two variables here: /z/ vs. /s/ and /àn/ vs. /ǝn/. The first now looks to be a mostly-UK vs.mostly-US thing. The second now looks to be a standard pronunciation (learned mostly from hearing other people’s pronunciations) vs. a pronunciation derived from the spelling (on analogy with other words with similar spelling).

    But the /àn/ variant falls in with other ‘particle’ words: photon, proton, electron, neutron, lepton, hadron, meson, baryon.

  8. Robert Says:

    Maybe I’ve only seen the word written — certainly I’ve read it much more often than I’ve heard it — and it had never occurred to me that the “s” might not be voiced (i.e., I’ve always heard it in my head, and said it myself, with /z/ and a secondary accent). Now that I think of it, though, I wouldn’t voice the s in “meson”.

  9. Michael Says:

    I can’t comment on the vowel qualities, but as a particle physicist no native English speaking physicist I’ve ever heard has used /s/ in boson, only /z/. However I’m British so perhaps that colours my expectations. It’s certainly /z/ in the media here, and consistantly so.

  10. The Ridger Says:

    Several years ago my friend and I arrived at a B&B in California where we were asked if we were the guests from Hawaii. No, I said, Oregon. The asker laughed, saying I certainly didn’t sound like I was from Oregon. (I’m not – we had driven from Oregon, but I’m from Tennessee, and I certainly don’t pronounce Oregon the way the natives do!)

  11. Steve Anderson Says:

    Turns out “bosons” are named after the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, whose name looks as if it should be pronounced with final [z], which would motivate the pronunciation [bózàn]. His name in Bengali, though, is সত্যেন্দ্র নাথ বসু Shottendronath Boshū [ʃot̪ːend̪ronat̪ʰ boʃu], which would suggest we really ought be talking about the Higgs [bóʃàn].

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