Haunted by the Past…Tense

Pronouncing even very simple words written in standard English can be treacherous. Consider the ending “-ed”, usually added to some verb stem to denote a past event (He painted the house) though it also appears  in an adjective function (painted chair).

(NOTE:  Items in parentheses below are supposed to represent sounds.)

Unfortunately for beginning readers, this ending can have THREE different pronunciations, none of which are even hinted at in written words. So while  the     -ed’s on pasted, razed and raced  are visually identical, they represent the SOUNDS /id/, /d/ and /t/:  /pays-tid/, /rayzd/ and /rayst/. This is not to say that you can’t switch the -ed sounds around. You could say /rayz-id/ or /race-id/.   Notice that you CAN’T say pasted any other way but /pays-tid).

The reason for this apparent silliness is really quite logical and economical and has to do with whether your vocal cords vibrate when the LAST SOUND of the stem word is said.  If you compare “bid” and “bit”, the difference between the two lies in the fact that /d/ entails vocal cord vibration; /t/ is nothing but a sort of hiss.  Sounds that are made by vocal cord vibrations are called “voiced”; sounds without such vibrations are called “voiceless”.

When you know this, you can pick up on sounds that differ only on the basis of whether they’re voiced or voiceless. Compare /b/-/p/; /d/-/t/; /g/-/k/; /v/-/f/, the first sound in each pair is voiced, the second is voiceless.

SO here’s the way it all works:

When a stem word ends in a voiced sound, the -ed will represent /d/. If the  stem ends in a voiceless sound, the -ed will represent /t/. Consequently, when you add –ed to roB, muG or saVe, the -ed sounds like /d/ because the last sound in the stems are the voiced sounds /b/, /g/ and /v/. But when you add -ed to roPe, muCK or golF, the -ed sounds like /t/ because the last sound in the stems are the voiceless sounds /p/, /k/ and /f/.

A problem arises, though, when a stem word ends in the sounds /t/ or /d/ because these are the sounds the -ed represents. So you can’t put a simple /d/ sound on pad or made. You could, I guess, but you’d wind up stuttering: /pad-d/.

The problem is solved in this way;

Regardless of whether if the stem word ends in a /t/ or a /d/sound, an added –ed will represent /id/ . Hence, /dot/ becomes /dot-id/ and /sod/ becomes /sod-id/. You can practice with nonsense syllables. What do you hear when you add –ed to nove vs. nofe or stibe vs. stipe or lete vs. lede?

You learned these rules for pronouncing –ed early on in your reading. BUT NO ONE EVER TAUGHT them  TO YOU. In fact, you never KNEW you knew them until now. So, how’d you do it?  How do kids do it. Would you even want to TRY to teach them these rules.

There are lots more of these linguistically sophisticated rules we know but don’t know we know. I’ll treat some in future posts.


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