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Merriam Webster dictionary's phonetic transcription is /dɪ-'zi:z/. But in this movie trailer: The Thinning 2016, min 0:13 'What causes disease', it sounds like /dɪ-'zi:s/. I believe i hear the hiss sound at the end. So which one is correct? which way should i go with? Thanks.

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  • You can rely on the pronunciation presented by any dictionary, e.g. Collins. /dɪˈziːz/ is standard in both BrE and NAmE. The alveolar hissing sibilant is not heard, and even in the trailer you link to, it's not there to my ear. Nov 23, 2016 at 0:01
  • Are you talking about the second "s"? I'm assuming so but it might help to clarify.
    – Catija
    Nov 23, 2016 at 0:29
  • Note that the transcription in the dictionary is really a phonemic transcription, not a phonetic transcription. You're asking about a phonetic detail, so the dictionary can't help you here.
    – user230
    Nov 23, 2016 at 2:05
  • @Catija Yes, i'm talking about the second "s" :)
    – domino
    Nov 23, 2016 at 7:54

2 Answers 2

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Listening

The phoneme here is /z/, just as you'd expect based on the transcription available in a dictionary. That is to say, native speakers of English will definitely hear this sound as /z/.

However, you're quite right that you're hearing an [s] sound! The /z/ sound here has undergone a phonetic process known as devoicing, something native speakers generally don't notice (as you can see from the comments section on your question). With devoicing, the /z/ phoneme in this word is actually pronounced as [s].

In fact, it takes special training to be able to hear this, as this distinction is non-phonemic in English, and native speakers spend their whole lives training to ignore non-phonemic distinctions. You can hear it because you're a non-native speaker, so you haven't trained your whole life to ignore it.

I am a native speaker, and I hear a /z/ in this recording as well. And yet, if I isolate just the /z/ sound, removing all of the other sounds before and after it, I hear an /s/ instead! So yes, most of the /z/ sound has been devoiced in this example, and your ears are working properly. It's simply a matter of how our brains interpret the sounds we hear being different.

In this case, /z/ is devoiced because it's in utterance-final position. For a full explanation of when this sort of devoicing occurs, please read Araucaria's post on English Language & Usage.

Speaking

As Araucaria explains in his answer, you do not need to try to devoice the /z/ in this sound when you say it yourself. Native speakers do it, but they generally can't hear it, so there's no reason to try to do it yourself.

When you pronounce this word, pronounce it as the dictionary suggests, with a [z] sound.

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  • Skeptics can visit this link, where they will find a clip of the word "disease" taken from the trailer; I have inserted .3 seconds of silence between the phonemes. The unvoiced sibilant is clearly heard at the end. Nov 23, 2016 at 4:09
  • Nice post (I voted earlier this morning). You might want to add that in this case it is because the /z/ comes at the end that is is devoiced (the middle /z/ is, of course, likely to be fully voiced all the way through) :-) Nov 23, 2016 at 11:46
  • @snailplane your post is helpful, yes, indeed. only 1 thing i dont really understand. "...this disctinction is non-phonemic in english, and native speakers spend their whole lives training to ignore non-phonemic distinctions...". What does non-phonemic mean? Do u mean this disctinction( either /s/ or /z/) doesn't change the meaning of the word? Thanks
    – domino
    Nov 24, 2016 at 1:47
  • @glacier1500 "Phonemes" are the sounds as native speakers hear them. English speakers use two different /p/ sounds in pin and spin, but they hear them as the same sound. Because they hear them as the same sound, they will never use that distinction to tell the difference between two words. Likewise, in this case, native speakers won't be able to hear that the final /z/ is pronounced as [s], so you don't need to pronounce it that way yourself.
    – user230
    Nov 24, 2016 at 6:01
  • @P.E.Dant's link is broken.
    – shoover
    Apr 13, 2017 at 22:20
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It depends on the accent of the speaker. The second syllable (disEAse) is the one which is stressed, so an "s" and a "z" sound should be hard to distinguish from each other.

The "s" in (dis)ease is pronounced similarly to the "s" in "license" or "exercise"

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  • Hmm... are you saying as a native speaker, you would have a hard time distinguishing "seas" from "cease"? To me, it doesn't seem much more difficult than distinguishing "strive" from "strife". And do you really pronounce "ease" to rhyme with "cease," as your last sentence implies?
    – sumelic
    Nov 23, 2016 at 0:04
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    Woah! The final consonants in license and exercise are not pronounced similarly. You can't mean to say that a voiced and unvoiced sibiliant sound the same to you. In /dɪ-'zi:z/ , the /z/ is voiced. In /ˈɛksəˌsaɪz/, likewise, the the /z/ is voiced. In /ˈlaɪsəns/, the /s/ is not voiced. Nov 23, 2016 at 0:10
  • For most (I'd think, all) native speakers, "license" has the sound /s/, and "exercise" has the sound /z/ (like at the end of the word "crystallize").
    – sumelic
    Nov 23, 2016 at 0:13
  • Got here via a double-hop from a top meta post. Just chiming in to say that I pronounce license to end in /z/, or /n(d)z/ if you must. And now I'm horrified to find no justification for my pronunciation after a quick search. Might be a regional thing. Native AmE speaker, spent childhood in Tennessee/Virginia, adulthood in Texas => my accent has a lot of laziness in it (e.g. vowels like pin = pen, consonants like wasn't => somewhere between wadn and wa'n with no final /t/).
    – shoover
    Apr 13, 2017 at 22:19

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