So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.
Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)
At the centre of each word is the vowel phoneme /ɒ/, represented by the letter o.
At the end of each word is the consonant cluster /ks/, represented by x and cks (one and three letters representing two sounds). The s /s/ at the end of socks is functional – it makes the difference between a singular sock and plural socks. The /s/ of x is not a separate letter and therefore is not functional. Dropping the /s/ from the pronunciation results in either a non-word, like /fok/, or a completely different word like bock (a German beer) or knock.
I can’t remember when I became aware that x actually has two sounds in its pronunciation. I suspect that many native English speakers would be unaware of that.
Chicks with bricks come. Chicks with blocks come.
Chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.
First, I’ll make a quick trick brick stack.
Then I’ll make a quick trick block stack.
Of particular interest are the words chicks, bricks, blocks, clocks, quick, trick and stack. ch is a digraph, or two letters together representing one sound – in this case /tʃ/. ch usually represents /tʃ/ in Germanic-derived words, /k/ in Greek-derived words and /ʃ/ in French derived words. In any case, it’s not a /k/ followed by a /h/. (Note that c doesn’t really have a sound of its own, but is usually either /k/ or /s/.) br, bl, cl, tr and st are double consonant clusters – they really are /b/ followed by /r/ or /l/ etc.
qu is unique in English, usually (as here) representing /kw/ (another long story), but it is impossible to say that q = /k/ and u = /w/. (My use of unique was originally unintentional, but illustrates another common pronunciation of qu(e). See also queue and quay.)
At the centre of each word are the vowel phonemes /ɪ/, represented by i, /ɒ/, represented by o (as above) and /æ/, represented by a. At the end are /ks/, represented by cks (as for socks, above) and /k/, represented by ck. Because the s is functional, we can have bricks and brick, and blocks and block etc.
n, s and t are single letters representing single sounds. The complication here is that new can either be /nju:/ (for me, for example), or /nu:/ (maybe for Dr Seuss) (another long story). wh is another digraph. Its usual pronunciation is /w/, but is /h/ for who (as here) and the related whom and whose, whole and whore.
For the vowels, we now have a ‘long vowel’ /u:/, represented by ew, o-e and ue. (There is, in general, more variation in the spelling of English vowels than consonants.) At the end of a word, we also now have no consonant – the only obligatory part of an English syllable is the vowel; this can be preceded by one, two or three consonants and/or followed by one, two, three or four of them.
Who sews whose socks?
Sue sews Sue’s socks.
s is probably the hardest-working letter in English, even if it is not the most common. Grammatically, it has three separate functions.
In sews, it marks a 3rd person singular present simple verb. she, he and it, and the noun phrases and names they replace, all require -s/-es/-ies on the end of the verb in this verb tense (and in past simple – was).
In Sue’s, it marks the genitive (or possessive) form of a noun. In many cases the possession is obvious, but there are many cases where the connection is rather more nebulous. Sue’s car belongs to Sue, but Sue’s train probably doesn’t.
In socks, it marks a plural noun. Singular and plural subject noun phrases affect the following verb, while singular and plural object noun phrases are usually interchangeable.
A fox wears a sock. A fox wears socks.
Foxes wear a sock. Foxes wears socks.
But there may be conceptual or stylistic reasons to choose a singular or plural object noun phrase.
A one-legged fox wears a sock. A one-legged fox wears socks.
One-legged foxes wear a sock. One-legged foxes wear socks.
A four-legged fox wears a sock. A four-legged fox wears socks.
Four-legged foxes wear a sock. Four-legged foxes wear socks.
The default pronunciation of s is /s/, but something happens with sews and Sue’s. In English, there is a fundamental difference between voiced and unvoiced phonemes. A voiced sound is produced when the vocal cords vibrate and and an unvoiced one when they don’t. The clearest example is the hiss of the word hiss (/s/) and the buzz of the word buzz (/z/). /s/ is unvoiced and /z/ is voiced. It is relatively difficult to turn voicing on and off (try saying sszzsszzsszz), so once voicing is ‘on’, it wants to stay on, and once it’s ‘off’, it wants to stay off.
The /oʊ/ of sew and the /u:/ of Sue are both voiced (in fact, all English vowels are voiced), so when it comes time to pronounce the s, the voicing stays ‘on’ and the /s/ turns into a /z/. We get /soʊz/ and /su:z/, whether we realise it or not. Probably not. I didn’t consciously learn about this until I did my first ESL qualification. The /k/ of socks, however, is unvoiced (compare socks and eggs > eggz), so the /s/ retains its default unvoiced pronunciation.
There are many more voiced phonemes in English than unvoiced, so in many more words of these three kinds, the s will be pronounced as /z/. (The technical term is ‘realised’.)
But that is not the whole story. This pronunciation rule only applies when the s marks a 3sg verb, a possessive noun or a plural noun. In other cases, the rule does not apply – compare bays and base. Further, some singular nouns trigger the rule while others don’t – compare phase (/z/) and face (/s/).
Native speakers do all of this automatically. Second language learners do it semi-automatically. I can’t recall any student’s pronunciation seriously interfering with understanding. Despite this, every textbook has a page on this pronunciation point (and the related /d/ > /t/ of past tense verbs).
For a similar discussion of this pronunciation point, see here. A few days ago, I saw a packet of ‘Petz snackz’. This is bad phonology – /t/ and /k/ are both unvoiced and don’t trigger the pronunciation change. Try saying petzzzz and snackzzzz – it’s very hard.
When a fox is in the bottle where the tweetle beetles battle with their paddles in a puddle on a noodle-eating poodle, THIS is what they call … a tweetle beetle noodle poodle bottled paddled muddled duddled fuddled wuddled fox in socks, sir!
I said in part 1 that ‘the only obligatory part of an English syllable is the vowel’. This is not totally true. The only obligatory part is the nucleus, which is usually a vowel. But a very small number of consonants can also act as a ‘consonant nucleus’. In English, the most common are l, m and n. What these have in common is that the airflow is relatively unrestricted – past the side of the tongue for l (which makes it a lateral) and through the nose for m and n (which makes them nasals). beetle can be pronounced as /bi:təl/, that is, the tip of the tongue briefly moves from the area behind the top teeth before moving back to make the /l/. But for many people, especially when speaking quickly and/or informally, the tip of the tongue does not move. Instead, the sides of the tongue move away from the mid-back teeth.
Other example of consonant nuclei in English are button (usually /’bʌ.tən/ but sometimes /’bʌ.tn/ (there should be a small line under the n) and prism (usually /’prɪ.zm/ (likewise with a small line under the m but sometimes /’prɪ.zəm/).
Some languages do not allow this at all. Others allow a wider range of consonant nuclei. Wikipedia’s article on Syllable has a example from the Nuxalk language of British Columbia: [t͡sʼkʰtʰskʷʰt͡sʼ] he arrived. Note that the airflow for /s/ is relatively unrestricted, relative to the other consonants around it.
One feature which distinguishes /t/ from /d/ is that /t/ is unvoiced and /d/ is voiced (see part 2). Another is that /t/ is usually aspirated – there is a small puff of air as the tongue is released. The faster one says beetle, the less time these two features have to register, and the /t/ sounds more like a /d/, to the point where it actually becomes one. Maybe Dr Seuss was expecting the pronunciation ‘tweedle beedles’. While he could have used the spelling tweedle for his made-up word, he had to use the spelling beetle for the existing one. (Maybe he wanted to avoid associations with Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee.)
Some time ago, I found this Youtube video of a speed reading of Fox in Socks (I haven’t been able to find her name – if I do, I’ll add it; I like to give credit whenever possible). Several other people have posted similar videos, but as far as I know, this was the original, and it is certainly the most exciting I have seen and heard.