Final obstruent devoicing

Final obstruent devoicing
Sound change and alternation


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



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 hardening'. 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, do distinguish voiced and voiceless obstruents however. Some examples from German include:

  • Laub 'foliage', pronounced [laʊ̯p] in citation
  • Rad 'wheel', pronounced [raːt]
  • Zug 'train', pronounced [tsuːk]


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 form the early fifth century that shows devoicing[1] suggests that its origins are Frankish. Final devoicing had also occurred in Frankish-influenced Old French.


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 citation as [bʲɛs].

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.


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]).

List of languages with final obstruent devoicing

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, 9789042015791

External links

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