WORDSWORDSWORDS#6 (Houses)


How do you pronounce H-O-U-S-E-S? You know, the plural of a domicile where you live? Well, I thought I knew, but lately I'm not so sure. I have a very sensitive ear for changes in our mother tongue, and lately I've heard more and more people pronouncing it differently from the way I have always said it and always heard it.

So, I asked my son, and he pronounced it exactly as I did- with an internal "z" sound as well as a final "z" sound. Below is the transcription of that pronunciation employed by linguists along with a pronunciation video:


ˈhaʊzɪz

But then I asked my daughter, and she pronounced it with an internal "s" sound, exactly as it looks like it should be said. I mean, after all, you have one "house" ('S' sound), shouldn't you have two "houses" ('S' sound)?

Transcribed as: haʊs

So, what gives? I had to explore.

Merriam-Webster's Usage panel says both are correct:

house

noun, often attributive

\ ˈhau̇s \

plural houses\ ˈhau̇-​zəz also -​səz \

But many disagree. On the usage site English Stack Exchange, there are a number of interesting entries. A Peter Shor writes:

I never heard /ˈhaʊsɪz/ until I moved to New England. But it's quite common here. The /z/ doesn't have anything to do with assimilation; it's just an irregularly pronounced plural. Otherwise, people would say blouzes and spouzes, which they don't. In most of the English-speaking world, the plural is pronounced /ˈhaʊzɪz/, and /ˈhaʊsɪz/ is just plain wrong.

In the UK dictionaries that I've checked, the only version given is /ˈhaʊzɪz/. And while it's common in New England, it must be quite uncommon in California and the New York area, because it sounded rather strange when I first got to Boston. So the right version to teach people learning English is clearly /ˈhaʊzɪz/ (which most people use even in New England).

Here is the response by the editors on that site. It gets a little into technical jargon, but I think you'll be able to get it:

We can see the effect of the Old English rule of voicing assimilation for fricative consonants in some other words where a final voiceless fricative in the singular changes to a voiced fricative in the plural. A few examples: leaf leaves, wolf-wolves, and for some speakers path-paths, truth-truths. (From an etymological perspective, the final consonant of leaf was actually "originally" voiced in Proto-Germanic, but devoiced in Old English because it was in word-final position. But the resulting distribution of voiced and voiceless forms is the same as for words like house and path whose fricatives come from Proto-Germanic voiceless sounds.) But as Peter Shor noted in a comment, this process is not automatic in modern English, and in fact the general pattern now is that voiceless fricatives between vowels do not assimilate in voicing; they stay unvoiced (as in the words blouses and spouses, for speakers who pronounce the singular forms of these words with voiceless /s/). So the plural form of house has become irregular in pronunciation.

What you see here, then, is that "houses" is an irregular form, and that English has many words that take on a different sound when pluralized. The site gives "leaf" and "wolf" as two examples. We don't say "leafs" or "wolfs". And when we see plurals for the words "blouse" and "spouse", there are variants. I think I pronounce "blouses" with an internal "s" sound and a final "z" sound, while I'm pretty sure that I pronounce "spouses" with an internal "z" sound and a culminating "z" sound! That means something else I have to work out!

Here is a video that discusses this puzzlement. You only need to watch the beginning because it gets a little into the weeds on this issue. Unless you love language.

Finally, let me point out that you can have a little fun with this, as Dr. Seuss did when he wrote The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Boris Karloff had a blast with his reading of these lines in the television special, as contributor John Deters points out, saying "mouses" with an internal "z" sound too!

"And the one speck of food that he left in the house was a crumb that was even too small for a mouse. Then he did the same thing to the other Whos' houses: leaving crumbs much too small for the other Whos' mouses!"