Crises? What crises?

I was pleasantly surprised the other day because rather unexpectedly I found a good example of how the plural of the word crisis –which is spelled crises, as you probaby know- has to be pronounced. Again, this was in an old BBC4 programme I had downloaded years ago, and I thought it was a good opportunity to brush up on a case many Spanish speakers might not know or have forgotten.

The rules are the same for all words ending in –sis, so this also applies to the plural of terms such as analysis, basis, crisis, thesis, genesis, oasis, diagnosis, synthesis, prosthesis and emphasis, among others.

Before starting with the explanation, let’s listen to the recording:

 There’d been a series of crises in which the Republic seemed to have shown itself as corrupt, as weak, as divisive and so on… (Robert Tombs, BBC4).


First, the spelling rule:

  • Words ending in -sis make their plural in -ses, like this:

crisis/crises, basis/bases, analysis/analyses, etc.


Second, the pronunciation rule. There are two changes and a warning. The changes are:

  1. The /ɪ/ becomes //
  2. The second /s/ becomes /z/

For example:

crisis /ˈkraɪsɪs/ – crises /ˈkraɪsiːz/

basis /ˈbeɪsɪs/ – bases /ˈbeɪsiːz/

analysis /əˈnæləsɪs/ – analyses /əˈnæləsiːz/

The warning, I’ll write about later.


Now, let’s listen to the recorded example again:

 There’d been a series of crises.

The first change, the long // is very noticeable. Let’s listen to it again:  crises.

However, the second change, the /s/ turning into a /z/, is nowhere to be seen or heard. Why is it?

Here is when we have to talk about the warning: because voiced consonants become devoiced at the end of words if they aren’t followed by another voiced sound. This process is thoroughly explained in this article. So, in actual fact, the /s/ remains as it is (voiceless) unless it is linked to a following vowel or voiced consonant. In the example we’re analysing, the speaker makes a pause after the word crises, so he pronounces an /s/. If he had linked it to the following word, in, he would certainly have produced the voiced version of the sound, /z/.


The /r/ and its subtleties


I was listening to a radio programme about the Bronze Age when one of the speakers, who was talking about that metal, said the following sentence:

sound_loud_speaker One very important skill was finding the ores.

It suddenly struck me that, for someone not aware of when the letter r  is pronounced and when it isn’t, the word ores  /ɔːz/ might be difficult to understand. As a non-native speaker, I’ve always found this quirky thing about the r  somewhat disconcerting. In some varieties of English (American, Scottish, Irish…), the r  is always pronounced when it’s found in the spelling, whereas in others (British, Australian, South-African…) the r  is silent unless it’s followed by a vowel. They are known as rhotic and non-rhotic varieties respectively.

In British English (the variety I speak, which is non-rhotic), this gives rise to many sets of homophones (as though there weren’t enough already in English!). Court is pronounced as caught  /kɔːt/, and floor as flaw  /flɔː/ and ore as awe  (and oar and or) /ɔː/. It is a feature that puts an additional strain on the non-native listener, who has to choose among different words that sound the same. And, although this is normally done through context, it is certainly true that it produces some strange sounds. This is what happens with the word mayor, in which the absence of the r  is compounded by the smoothing of the previous triphthong, and this is the result:

sound_loud_speaker “You know, he’s a bussinesman”. “The mayor?” “The mayor“. /m/

A particularly difficult case is the word iron, which of course is exceptional because the r  isn’t pronounced even though it’s followed by a vowel in the spelling. And, again, the smoothing of the triphthong makes it even more difficult. Listen to these two examples:

sound_loud_speaker But perhaps the most interesting discovery of all was the remains of a furnace, dating from 5th century B.C. and used for smelting iron. /aɪən/

sound_loud_speaker A blacksmith with an iron bar hitting random Frenchmen in the street over the head. /ən ˈaən bɑː/


The rhotic/non-rhotic dilemma has always fascinated me. I really think that as non-native speakers we have to choose how we do it and stick to it for the sake of consistency (and of course this is embedded in the broader question of which variety of English we speak). I find pros and cons in both, actually. I admit non-rhoticity makes the understanding of some words more difficult, but to a certain extent it’s similar to what happens in American English with the letter t, which is dropped or produced as a tap on many occasions. This, too, results in many challenging words for the non-accustomed listener. On the other hand, I’ve always found it easier to speak in a non-rhotic variety, but this is a personal idiosyncrasy of mine, I suppose.

In any case, when choosing where you say the r  or not, keep in mind that this sound is not always the same in the different varieties of English. The American /r/ is rather different from the British, and both of them are really poles apart from the Scottish /r/, which might sound very strange indeed (but lovely, of course).