When you hear Americans spell their names,

  • C is pronounced as /'si:/, and
  • Z is pronounced as /'zi:/.

To me, both sound the same. What can I do to hear a difference?

In English language classes, this issue never came up, because we were taught British English, where Z is pronounced as /ˈzɛd/.

Research I've done: Apparently, /s/ is the voiceless alveolar fricative and /z/ is the voiced alveolar fricative. I tried to find words in my native language (Austrian German) using /s/ and /z/, but, apparently, /z/ is voiceless in the southern German variants, so that doesn't help either.

  • 1
    I am not native, but I do not share the same problem. I think Z is conspicuous. What about, /z/ sound at beginning of sie?
    – Cardinal
    Jul 2, 2016 at 9:01
  • 2
    Musik. Fluessig.
    – TimR
    Jul 2, 2016 at 13:16
  • 1
    @TRomano I think OP's problem is word-onset /sV/. I can't think of an instance where the [s]-[z] contrast there would be phonemic in German. Jul 2, 2016 at 17:17
  • 2
    @StoneyB: How does OP (or do Austrians) pronounce Szenen?
    – TimR
    Jul 2, 2016 at 18:23
  • 3
    With the /s/ followed by /ts/ ?
    – TimR
    Jul 2, 2016 at 18:47

4 Answers 4


Practise, practise, practise, and don't just listen, try to do it yourself.

Think about the difference between /f/ (as in fünf) and /v/ (as in weiß). What do you do differently when you pronounce /v/? Can you do that whilst saying /s/?


Phonetics sites might help you. The wikipedia articles are good and contain sound samples. Personally I always liked this one but there might be others.

But anyway, if all else fails, you can always ask,

Sorry, I didn't catch that, was that 'c' for 'Charlie' or 'z' for 'zulu'?


The problem, as you suggest, is that

(1) in Standard German the sound [z] is most often encountered as an 'allophone' (environmentally determined variant) of /s/; in those instances where the [s]-[z] contrast is phonemic, [s] is orthographically marked as <ss> (eg., weise - weisse).


(2) In your dialect of German /s/ is almost always realized as [s], regardless of environment; in effect, Austrian German does not have a [z] sound.

However: when I attended the Innsbruck Realgymnasium in '62-63 there was regular instruction in speaking "proper" Hochdeutsch.

If that was still the case in your schooling, this may help: the difference between 'C' /'si:/ and 'Z' /'zi:/ is the difference between the way you ordinarily say Sie and the way you were taught you should say Sie.


Please compare the German "Sie" (you) and the second syllable of the French "Merci" (thanks). Are they pronounced the same in your area?

Assuming that you hear a difference, then "Sie" sounds like the name of the letter "Z" and the "cie" in "Merci" sounds like the name of the letter "C".


It's true that when naming the letters of the alphabet, the British call the letter Z, "Zed". But in both British and American English, the phoneme "z" /'zi:/, is pronounced differently from a soft "c" /'si:/.

Your native dialect may not have a phoneme similar to the English /'zi:/, but you certainly have the sound. If you've ever had your hair cut with an electric hair trimmer, then you've heard the English /'zi:/ --- "buzzzzzzzzz".

A "soft c" (/'si:/) in English is pronounced like the English "s". It sounds like air escaping a punctured tire, and that's basically how you make the sound. To make a soft /c/ -- hold your mouth slightly open, press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, with the tip against your upper front teeth, so that you can not exhale through your mouth. Now drop the tip of your tongue to let air escape, and finally feel your throat just below your jaw - if your vocal cords are not vibrating, that's an English /'si:/

To voice an English "z" (/'zi:/), hold your tongue similar to /'si:/, but drop the tip of your tongue to touch your lower front teeth. The big difference is the "voiced" part - when you exhale, the vocal cords vibrate (remember the electric hair trimmer :-).

The key is the vibrating vocal cords. Hold your fingers to your throat, when you practice -- vibrating = /'zi:/ ("fuzzy") --- not vibrating = /'si:/ ("fussy").

Some people soften their z's, so that they almost sound like a /'si:/. But remember those electric hair trimmers and you'll be buzzzzzzing away in no time.

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