Final-obstruent devoicing

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Sound change and alternation

Final-obstruent devoicing or terminal devoicing is a systematic phonological process occurring in languages such as German, Dutch, Russian, Turkish, and Wolof. In such languages, voiced obstruents become voiceless before voiceless consonants and in pausa.

Dutch and Afrikaans

In Dutch and Afrikaans, terminal devoicing results in homophones such as hard 'hard' and hart 'heart' as well as differences in consonant sounds between the singular and plural forms of nouns, for example golf–golven (Dutch) and golf–golwe (Afrikaans) for 'wave–waves'.

The history of the devoicing phenomenon within the West Germanic languages is not entirely clear, but the discovery of a runic inscription from the early fifth century that suggests that this terminal devoicing[1] originated in Frankish. Of the old West Germanic languages, Old Dutch, a descendant of Frankish, is the earliest to show any kind of devoicing, and final devoicing also occurred in Frankish-influenced Old French.


English does not have phonological final-obstruent devoicing of the type that neutralizes phonemic contrasts; thus pairs like bad and bat are distinct in all major accents of English. Nevertheless, voiced obstruents are devoiced to some extent in final position in English, especially when phrase-final or when followed by a voiceless consonant (for example, bad cat [bæd̥ kʰæt]).

Relics of a final devoicing of "v" are to be found between words so related as "half" and "halves", and "knife" and "knives" distinguishing singular and plural.


In the southern varieties of German, the contrast between homorganic obstruents is rather an opposition of fortis and lenis than an opposition of voiceless and voiced sounds. Therefore, the term devoicing may be misleading, since voice is only an optional feature of German lenis obstruents. Likewise, the German term for the phenomenon, Auslautverhärtung, does not refer to a loss of voice and is better translated as 'final fortition'. However, the German phenomenon is similar to the final devoicing in other languages in that the opposition between two different kinds of obstruents disappears at the ends of words. The German varieties of the north, and many pronunciations of Standard German, involve voice in the distinction between fortis and lenis obstruents however.

Some examples from German include:

Nouns Verbs
Singular Translation Plural Imperative Translation Infinitive
Bad [baːt] bath Bäder [ˈbɛːdɐ] red! [ʁeːt] talk! reden [ˈʁeːdn̩]
Maus [maʊ̯s] mouse Mäuse [ˈmɔʏ̯zə] lies! [liːs] read! lesen [ˈleːzn̩]
Raub [ʁaʊ̯p] robbery Raube [ˈʁaʊ̯bə] reib! [ʁaɪ̯p] rub! reiben [ˈʁaɪ̯bn̩]
Zug [t͡suːk] train Züge [ˈt͡syːɡə] sag! [zaːk] say! sagen [ˈzaːɡn̩]
Fünf [fʏɱf] five Fünfen [ˈfʏɱvn̩]


Final-obstruent devoicing can lead to the neutralization of phonemic contrasts in certain environments. For example, Russian бес ('demon', phonemically /bʲes/) and без ('without', phonemically /bʲez/) are pronounced identically in isolation as [bʲes].

The presence of this process in Russian is also the source of the seemingly variant transliterations of Russian names into "-off" (Russian: -ов), especially by the French, as well as older English transcriptions.

Devoicing in compounds

In compounds, the behavior varies between languages:

  • In some languages, devoicing is lexicalized, which means that words that are devoiced in isolation retain that final devoicing when they are part of a compound. In German, for example, the devoicing of the word Abend [ˈaːbn̩t] "evening" is preserved in the compound Abendsonne [ˈaːbn̩tzɔnə][2] "evening sun", while the final /d/ in the plural Abende [ˈaːbn̩də] "evenings" retains the voice.
  • In other languages, it is purely phonological. which means that voicing depends solely on position and on assimilation with adjacent consonants. Example: Slovene.[citation needed]

Languages with final-obstruent devoicing

Germanic languages

All modern continental West Germanic languages developed final devoicing, the earliest evidence appearing in Old Dutch around the 9th or 10th century. Gothic (an East Germanic language) also developed final devoicing independently.

Of the North Germanic languages, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish (the latter of which has no voiced obstruents) do not have final devoicing. As in Danish, Icelandic stops are voiceless, but it has voiced fricatives which may also occur word-finally.

Romance languages

Among the Romance languages, word-final devoicing is common in the Gallo-Romance languages, which tend to exhibit strong Frankish influence (itself the ancestor of Old Dutch, above).

Romanian does not have it. Other Romance languages such as Italian rarely have words with final voiced consonants.

Slavic languages

Most Slavic languages exhibit final devoicing, but notably Serbo-Croatian (the Štokavian dialect) and Ukrainian do not.

Other languages

Note: Hungarian, which lies geographically between Germanic and Slavic languages, does not have it.

See also


  • Brockhaus, Wiebke. (1995) Final Devoicing in the Phonology of German. Max Niemeyer Verlag.
  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.
  1. B. Mees, The Bergakker inscription and the beginnings of Dutch, in: Amsterdamer beiträge zur älteren Germanistik: Band 56- 2002, edited by Erika Langbroek, Annelies Roeleveld, Paula Vermeyden, Arend Quak, Published by Rodopi, 2002, ISBN 90-420-1579-9, ISBN 978-90-420-1579-1
  3. In Middle High as opposed to Modern German, devoicing is represented in writing, thus Kriemhilt is the shortened form of Kriemhilde.
  4. van der Veen, Klaas F. (2001), "13. West Frisian Dialectology and Dialects", in Munske, Horst Haider; Århammar, Hans (eds.), Handbook of Frisian studies, Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag GmbH, p. 104, ISBN 3-484-73048-X<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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