Vers(e|u)s

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In a comment on "Versing" (6/19/2012), Tony from Toronto asserted that "versus and verses are quite distinct when written and when pronounced". I expressed skepticism about differences in pronunciation, in the form of a half-serious offer of a wager. Bob Ladd warned me that I might lose, at least with respect to some British speakers.

For most North American varieties, at least, I believe that my bet would be a fairly safe one. This is not to deny that facultative disambiguation might be possible, or even that there might be distributional differences in normal productions (among other things, due to the rather different phrasal distribution of the two words). But a pre-literate child in North America is likely to hear pronunciations in which "Thunder versus Heat" and "Thunder verses Heat" are essentially indistinguishable.

As a quick check on this hypothesis, here is a random sample of 20 instances of versus and verses, taken from conversational speech. If you're interested in the question, listen to them and send me what you hear in each case.

This is a two-alternative forced-choice experiment, so if you can't tell for some stimuli, guess. Thus your response sheet should be the numbers from 1 to 20, each paired with "verses" or "versus", indicating how you hear each stimulus.

Please also briefly sketch your linguistic background — that is, where you were born and raised, not what linguistic courses you've taken…

I'll open the comments section for discussion after I get enough responses for some statistical analysis.

More than enough people have sent in their results — around 60 — thanks! I've only processed 25 so far… Based on a one-sided exact binomial test , the probability for those 25 subjects to have done as well or better by random guessing is p=0.5894.

So on this sample, for these subjects, I think I'd win my bet.

There are some additional interesting patterns, to be discussed later. Once I've found time to add the rest of the data, I'll post a .csv file with all of it. Meanwhile, the answer key and the sample contexts are in a second table below. Comments are now open.

1

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7

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8

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9

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10

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11

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12

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13

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14

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15

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16

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17

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18

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19

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20

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The answer key, and the contexts the samples came from.:

1 u

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2 e

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3 u

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4 u

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5 u

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6 e

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7 e

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8 e

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9 e

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10 u

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11 e

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12 e

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13 u

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14 u

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15 e

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16 u

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17 u

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18 u

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19 u

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20 e

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37 Comments »

  1. dw said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    I'm a British native, and generally distinguish weak vowels (I have minimal pairs like "affect" and "effect"). However, my "versus" is a perfect homophone of "verses" (both end in /sɪz/), probably because I learned "versus" at a young age in the context of sporting contests. I think that every other Latin-derived word ending in "-us" has /əs/, except "Jesus" which has /əz/.

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    Exactly the same as dw, except re Jesus (or at least, the pronunciation of his name).

    I found myself trying to guess based on where the words sounded like they were positioned in the sentence, by virtue of their stress/intonation. A strategy which brought me a 50% success rate…

  3. Bobbie said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    I was listening for the /əz/ at the end to signify versEs for me. But it did not always work. My score reflects that.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    I was thinking only of the verb verses, not the noun, and that verb isn't a part of my vocabulary, not even as something I hear. So I didn't judge any as sounding like verses. It was versus or either. And of the ones I judged as being "versus", I was wrong much more than I was right. And I don't think thinking of verses as a noun (as it was in most cases) would have helped me identify those as ambiguous.

    Basically, I expect versus to sometimes (and standardly) have /əz/ but verses to always have /ɪz/. And that would be true for the noun verses as well as the verb. Whether or not that actually reflects my speech I can't say, but, from the samples here, it's clearly not universal.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    Just read Bobbie's comment and see her strategy was opposite to mine. :) (Not that I'd call it a strategy in my case.)

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    I haven't checked my score yet, but I won't be surprised if it was 50% or below.

    I thought there were several examples that I couldn't have told from [vice] versa. I wonder how people would do if they could hear the next syllable. I can see, though, that it could give a clue to whether we'd heard "verses" or "versus".

    I also wonder how people could do if they could listen to a sample of each person's speech, maybe one containing final /səs/ and /səz/, before hearing the word in question.

  7. Dick Margulis said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    A perfect 50%. Well, I guess my strategy failed (trying to differentiate based on voicing and length of final consonant).

  8. Sevly said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    Pflaumbaum said,
    I found myself trying to guess based on where the words sounded like they were positioned in the sentence, by virtue of their stress/intonation.

    Same here; I relied mostly on the intonation because, just as I suspected, I certainly couldn't tell the slightest difference in the sound of the last syllable, which gave me the stunning score of 55 percent.

  9. Matt said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    If I pronounce them carefully, versus has a more central vowel than verses (which is a bit more front).

    If I don't pronounce them carefully they're pretty much identical for me, both with schwa.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Bobbie: Do you mean /əz/ versus /ɪz/ or /əz/ versus /əs/? After reading Jerry Friedman's comment, it occurs to me maybe your strategy was not opposite to mine after all.

  11. Craig said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

    By the time I had listened to half the samples it was very clear to me that I couldn't even begin to tell them apart, and anything I said for any of them would be a total guess. I began with a strong impression that I pronounced the words differently myself, but as I test my pronunciation I am starting to doubt whether that is true — I think I say them both with -siz at the end in pretty much every situation, and any variation due to sentence position or surrounding words would affect both equally.

    I think this is one of those cases where the gut feeling that I am saying "different words" — i.e. that I'm accessing different files that are stored in different places in my brain — is fooling me into thinking I am pronouncing them differently. It feels different to say "verses" and "versus", so I assume it must sound different too.

  12. Alex said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

    IANAL(inguist), I just ran across this while looking up "feck".
    I missed only 5 (4, 6, 13, 15, 17), most of them seemed quite clear to me. I had no strategy, but I think there is information contained in how each sound bit is clipped.

  13. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    13 out of 20 right; no conscious strategy. I think I use a voiced s at the end of the one meaning "poems" and unvoiced for "against," but I haven't tried to test this belief.

  14. The Ridger said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    @Craig: I think this is exactly what happens. It's why so many people don't think they say (for instance) 'rider' and 'writer' the same way. I certainly didn't, until a conversation with a friend over the movie 'Ghost Writer', which I accessed as 'Ghost Rider' despite knowing that she was talking about an indy/art-house festival, convinced us both that we can't tell them apart on hearing each other… which means we say them the same. If I had the verb 'to verse' I'm sure I would say 'verses' differently than I say the plural noun 'verses' but I strongly doubt it would be different from 'versus'.

  15. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    I had a 60% rate of success. The clipping of the sounds in the samples seemed to make a difference to me. I definitely pronounce the words differently, with verses /ɪz/ and versus /əs/. That may be because I'm a classics major who sometimes inadvertently re-latinizes anglicized words.

    I also tend to over-enunciate. On the other hand, I stress 'versus' differently in speech, hitting the first syllable harder and faster, and clipping the second syllable: almost vers's. That makes me anticipate hearing it that way, and so of the 8 samples I misidentified, 7 were a 'versus' I thought was 'verses.'

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

    I’m Scottish, older, very traditionally brought up, introduced to Latin at a young age, and with a speak-as-you-spell tendency. I say 'versus' [ˈvɛɹsəs] with a final [s], 'verses' [ˈvɛɹsɪz].

  17. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    Born New York City 1942, lived Northern California since 1958, first language English. Married to an attorney who pronounces "versus" "vee."

  18. Gordon Campbell said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    Born and raised in Australia. Nine out of twenty.

  19. a said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    i think there some kind of weak correlation between stress and category — first syllable stress i think goes more with the noun verses, and no stress with preposition versus.

  20. Tony said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

    Well, as I confessed when I sent my guesses — I mean, answers — in, it's been made crystal clear that versus and verses are really hard to tell apart by ear.

    Obviously, I was wrong about the "quite distinct when written" part, too. It took all my powers of concentration to make sure I was typing the right word.

  21. Eugene said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 4:44 am

    This nifty experiment confirms my intuition that these two words are pronounced the same in General North American English. The vowels are the same. If you wanted to make a distinction in careful pronunciation, the voicing/de-voicing of the final consonant would be the best strategy.

    Do we have minimal pairs based on vowel quality distinctions in unstressed syllables? My guess is that unstressed /ɪz/ and /əz/ are in free variation or are conditioned by their phonetic environments (i.e. not phonemic, no minimal pairs).

    From the comments you can see how strongly the writing system influences our phonetic judgements. We often believe that homophones are pronounced differently because we have an image of the written word in our minds. When you learn or teach IPA transcription, you see how strong that influence is.

    One last thought about 'writer' and 'rider' – they probably are pronounced the same (another experiment suggests itself) but I know how to pronounce them differently. The diphthong in 'rider' should be longer due to the lengthening rule that applies to vowels before voiced consonants. So, if the lengthening rule applied before the flapping rule, the two forms would be distinct. If the flapping rule applies first, it would cancel the lengthening rule and the two would sound the same.

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 6:31 am

    I think I voice the final consonant in "verses" but not in "versus", and that that's the only difference. In a sentence spoken at normal conversational speed, that distinction would probably often vanish.

  23. The Ridger said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    I think a lot of people who don't have the verb 'to verse' are thinking of 'verses' as the noun. I would not pronounce the two words spelled 'verses' the same. The noun gets a Z, the verb an S. The same with, say, 'curse'. I'm quite willing to believe that distinction is more in my mind than my mouth, though.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    @Eugene: I've heard of a demonstration where you lengthen or shorten a vowel (in the old days you spliced tape in or out) and change American "pick" to "pig" and vice-versa. See about halfway down here. Maybe someone who knows will comment.

    For those of us with Canadian Raising, the change in length affects the vowel quality, so I think my "writer" and "rider" are fairly distinct (and I have a minimal pair in "quire" and "choir"). However, I also think I have a minimal pair in "hearty" and "hardy", but listening to a recording of myself suggested that maybe you shouldn't trust me.

  25. david waugh said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    I am amazed to discover that there are people who don't pronounce versus and verses differently.

  26. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    @Ridger–

    I pronounces noun and verb of "verses" (not that I use it) and "curses" the same.

  27. Mary Bull said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

    I'm a native of coastal South Texas and have lived in Southern Kentucky and Middle Tennessee for over 60 years now.

    I got 10 examples wrong and 10 right.

    It was interesting to me that one of the examples I got wrong to my ear had "ar" as in "part" for the vowel, and I got this wrong by marking it "e" on account of hearing the final "s" pronounced as a "z" (to my ear). That was number 3. But I also heard the vowel in number 20 as "ar" and got it right by marking it "e," again on account of hearing the final "s" as a "z.'

    Fascinating experiment.

  28. Mary Bull said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    Should have said "ar" as in "part" for the first vowel I wasn't distinguishing the second vowels at all — heard both as "schwa."

  29. the other Mark P said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

    I am amazed to discover that there are people who don't pronounce versus and verses differently.

    New to Language Log then?

    There are lots of posts here showing that people are wildly incorrect in their assessments of how differently they pronounce words. The only thing more sure is that some will refuse to believe it, no matter how much evidence.

    The only people I know who pronounce words like verses and versus differently in practice (as opposed to how they think they do it) are native speakers of languages without the schwa. They sound quite odd as they continue resolutely to pronounce the ends of words.

  30. Eugene said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

    I'm fairly sure that the plural rule and the 3rd Person Singular Present rule are the same. [əz] after sibilants, [s] after voiceless, [z] after voiced segments, so the noun/verb difference shouldn't matter.

    @Jerry Friedman. I have Canadian Raising, too, so I believe that 'writer/rider' are slightly different in length and quality for me as well. There might be a length distinction between 'latter/ladder.' I wouldn't bet a lot on it, though.

    I'm impressed with those who have recorded themselves to check their pronunciations – a very good attempt at being objective and you seem to have arrived at the correct result. There's still the possibility that you would produce a distinction for the recording that you wouldn't in normal production.

  31. Ellen K. said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 12:12 am

    Eugene, I believe it's the first s, the ones also in verse and curse, where some people have a difference between the noun and the verb.

    For me they are the same, but an example with a voicing difference but no spelling difference is house. And this page has several words that have a voicing difference with also a spelling difference between the noun and verb forms.

  32. Eugene said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 12:04 am

    Ellen K.,

    Most of the references were to a /səs/ and /səz/ voicing distinction. Merriam Webster transcribes 'versus' as /ˈvər-səs, -səz/. That seems like a plausible distinction to me, even though most of us don't preserve it.
    Voicing the first consonant would yield /ˈvərz/ and /ˈvər-zəz/, which doesn't sound plausible to me. I'd have to hear it to believe it. Anyway, nobody spelled or transcribed it that way in the preceding discussion.
    The thing about the noun/verb voicing pairs you link to is that they are old words that underwent the sound change long ago under the influence of suffixes that have since fallen out of use. I don't think we do that with newly derived verbs.

  33. Ellen K. said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 6:50 am

    Yes, I'm aware of that, Eugene. But, when we talk about a voicing distinction between verses as a noun or a verb, we aren't talking about "versus" at all, which is neither. We are talking about something like the difference between proof and prove, though without the spelling difference, both the noun and the verb being spelling verse.

  34. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    English is my L2, with a British-type accent. I distinguish "versus" from "verses" consistently myself, though it doesn't surprise me they get merged in many accents. My score in the test was 6 wrong (4, 5, 6, 11, 13, 18) "verses" 14 right. There is a clear bias in the results: in the cases where I was wrong, I nearly always heard intended "verses" as "versus" rather than the other way round. When listening to the recordings, I paid less attention to the colour of the unstressed vowel than to the relative duration of the two syllables (the clipping effect of /s/ in "versus").

  35. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    I wrote: I nearly always heard intended "verses" as "versus" rather than the other way round.

    Oops, actually, it WAS the other way round. I heard "verses" where "versus" was intended.

  36. Mel Nicholson said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

    @Jerry Friedmann I haven't worked with pig/pick in particular, but I can report that ladder and latter differed primarily by the duration of the /æ/ in a series of experiments in 1989 with 20-25 year old subjects in the U.C.Berkeley area, all of whom had some flavor of US-English as a dialect. It was only about a 12ms variation in length, so this isn't like gemination in other languages. Correct identification rates for naturally produced examples were well over 90%. The artificial ones were lower, but not by a statistically significant amount (given 11 subjects and ~20 examples)

  37. Eugene said,

    June 27, 2012 @ 4:42 am

    Mel makes a good point about vowel duration. Even though the difference was relatively small, correct identifications averaged 90%. So you can conclude that we have a minimal pair for vowel length between latter and ladder. In any comparison of minimal pairs, you'd expect a rate of identification close to 100%.

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