Voiced vs. Unvoiced Pronunciation

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Two terms I often use when writing about pronunciation are voiced and unvoiced. Apparently they are not as familiar in this context as I assumed they were. A reader has asked me to explain my use of them.

In one sense, to voice something is the same as to say or speak it:

Homeowners voice their concerns about increased earthquake activity.

Likewise, in some contexts, unvoiced means unspoken:

If people seem tense because of unvoiced disagreements, you may have to bring concerns out into the open.

In the context of pronunciation, however, voiced and unvoiced refer to consonant sounds that are uttered with the lips, tongue and teeth in the same position, but which produce different sounds.

Voiced sounds result when the vocal cords are touching and vibrate.

Unvoiced sounds are pronounced with the vocal cords apart.

For example, both sounds, /d/ and /t/ are uttered with the tongue in the same position, but the sound at the beginning of the word dog is voiced. The sound at the beginning of the word toy is unvoiced.

The following English consonant letter pairs represent voiced and unvoiced sounds:

b/p = boy, pit

d/t = dog, toy

v/f = van, fan

Note: The usual spelling for the unvoiced sound in this pair is f. An exception is the word of, in which the letter f represents the voiced sound.

j/tch = jet, witch

Note: The letter g represents two sounds. The “soft” sound is the same as that of the letter j. The “hard” sound belongs to the following consonant pair.

g/k = girl, kite

The letter s and the letter-combination th represent both voiced and unvoiced sounds:

s = music [voiced], sing [unvoiced]
th = they [voiced], thin [unvoiced]

The sound /zh/ is represented by the letter g in a few English words derived from French, such as genre and menagerie, but more often the sound /zh/ is spelled with the letter combination si: invasion, intrusion, vision. The /zh/ sound is also spelled with the letter s followed by u: visual, casual.

The unvoiced sound of /zh/ is /sh/, as in ship.

The sounds for the letters l, m, n, ng, and r are voiced. They do not have unvoiced equivalents in English.

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3 thoughts on “Voiced vs. Unvoiced Pronunciation”

  1. Anyone who has learned another language (or taught ESL) would/should be conscious of this distinction. It’s also one way to distinguish dialects or regional differences within the same language if one listens carefully!

  2. Wow, maybe it takes an ESL speaker to be conscious of it!
    I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that through a long school career of AP and honors English classes, plus some slight training in ventriloquism, where those some of those distinctions are explicitly used for effect, I was never consciously aware of some of those voiced/unvoiced relationships. It just never came up (or it did and I forgot it) and it never occurred to me to notice. Learn something new every day.

  3. I think it is correct to say that today, at least, unless you specifically studied linguistics (not just English classes) you would have no idea whatever what such a term meant. Even if you knew there were 2 TH sounds (which you probably would) you would have no idea that one was “voiced” the other “unvoiced”, which was which, or what that meant. It certainly never came up in any class I ever took (wouldn’t know about ESL). Nor would you know that b/p or f/v were related sounds, only that they were different (it is hoped).

    One of my consistent laments (I’m sure to the point of the annoyance of all) has been that very little to nothing at all is taught in schools anymore regarding pronunciation. Not even the basics of what is “proper” vs “iNproper” pronunciation (God forbid being so judgmental) are covered, let alone what the mechanical pieces of speech are called.

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