Reiß and reis are two words that have the same pronunciation in standard German. So why is it that the final phoneme in each word is different? In reiß it is /s/, and in reis it is /z/.

Is there some system whereby words retain the same phonemes when they are inflected? Does it have to do with the fact that the words are not pronounced the same in different varieties of German? Or am I just entirely misunderstanding the whole thing?

  • Your question is somewhat mis-stated, in that the phonemes in the two stems are the same in the imperative, but the underlying forms are different. "Phoneme" is not the same as "underlying form". You can tell that the underlying forms are rais and raiz from looking at the consonant as it appears before a vowel. The voiced obstruents all change to the corresponding voiceless phoneme in syllable-final position. The phoneme value is whatever the allophonic value is in the particular word, minus any allophonic changes like aspiration, release, etc.
    – user6726
    Oct 23, 2022 at 0:36
  • @user6726 How do you decide that aspiration and release are allophonic changes, but coda fortition is not? It seems rather perverse to me to assume that all syllables ending in an underlyingly lenis consonant change their phonemes when that consonant ends up in coda position. Oct 23, 2022 at 8:40
  • The criterion of complementary distribution establishes that in English. I don't know what you mean by "consonant fortition", something that we don't have in English. It seems perverse to me to deny this change at least in German. Are you opposed to phonological neutralization rules in principle?
    – user6726
    Oct 23, 2022 at 15:29
  • @user6726 Consonant fortition is the ‘devoicing’ that occurs in German in syllable coda, where lenis consonants become fortis (and voiced consonants become unvoiced). I’m not opposed to phonological neutralisation rules, but I am opposed to changing root phonemes based on syllable structure unless there’s a very good reason for it (e.g., phonemicised syncope in alternating unstressed syllables in Old Irish), and I can’t see any good reason for it here. You would say, then, that fortis /t/ ([tʰ]) becoming lenis [t] based on its position (after /s/) is an allophone of the same phoneme, but → Oct 23, 2022 at 20:18
  • → lenis /t/ ([t]) becoming fortis [tʰ] based on its position (syllable coda) is a different phoneme. I don’t see any reason for that. Oct 23, 2022 at 20:19

2 Answers 2


The idea is, humans don't memorize every individual form of reisen separately. Instead, they memorize the rules for deriving reise, reist, and all the other forms from a single stem. (Look into "the wug test" for more on how we know this.)

And for a speaker to know that reisen is pronounced with a [z] and reißen is pronounced with a [s], that information must somehow be included in the stem.

So the standard explanation is, your internal, unconscious knowledge of how the language works includes:

  • One word has the stem /rais/ and the other has the stem /raiz/
  • To form the imperative, you just use the stem on its own without any endings
  • When /z/ comes at the end of the word, you pronounce it as [s]
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    The third point becomes all the clearer when you notice that this happens with all words that end in voiced sounds if they have an unvoiced counterpart: /b d g v z dʒ/ all get devoiced at the end of words to /p t k f s tʃ/ (not sure if there are actually any German roots that end in /dʒ/). Oct 22, 2022 at 23:06
  • So from a practical point of view, do the phonemes for a word stem always stay the same throughout the various inflections (as long as the root itself does not change)? Including verbs, nouns adjectives. Oct 22, 2022 at 23:34
  • @JacobLee-Hart Pretty much, yeah. It's not quite that simple because there are processes like umlaut that change the phonemes inside the stem, but even then you're taking the stem and applying a predictable, regular rule to it.
    – Draconis
    Oct 22, 2022 at 23:36
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    @LjL: Terminal devoicing is a regional phenomenon in Germany. It’s arguably complete in Northern German, but fades the more you go South. Oct 23, 2022 at 5:58
  • 1
    @LjL: It is called "incomplete neutralization". I have also seen papers about it, which I mentioned in my answer to "Does assimilation of voice produce different phonemes, or just allophones?" Oct 23, 2022 at 7:06

Phonemes are defined by their contrast with other phonemes. Since German doesn't allow /z/ and /s/ contrast in word final position, we can't claim that both phonemes exist in that position; or, in fancy words, "their distinction is underspecified in that environment". So on a phonemic level both words need to be transcribed the same, as /ra͜is/ (see note)*.

The actual difference between both words in on another level - the underlying representation of their morphemes. That difference is not visible in their imperatives...

⟨reis⟩ "travel!" is //ra͜iz// → /ra͜is/. In word final position, //z// appears as the phoneme /s/.

⟨reiß⟩ "tear!", "break!" //ra͜is// → /ra͜is/. In word final position, //s// appears as the phoneme /s/.

...but it is in their infinitives:

⟨reisen⟩ "to travel" is //ra͜iz// + //ən// = //ra͜izən// → /ra͜izən/. In intervocalic position, //z// appears as /z/.

⟨reißen⟩ "to tear", "to break" is //ra͜is// + //ən// = //ra͜isən// → /ra͜isən/. In intervocalic position, //s// appears as /s/.

So it's a bit like languages pile up abstraction over abstraction: you have the raw sounds, then the phonemes, then the underlying representation.

*NOTE: how to transcribe it might change from author to author. A few authors would use /S/, an "archiphoneme", to highlight that the distinction between /s/ or /z/ doesn't exist in that position. Other authors would simply plop /s/ (as it's closer to the raw sound) and call it a day. Either way, the important bit is: if there's no phonemic distinction, you can't transcribe both differently.

  • Is my book wrong then for transcribing the imperative 'reis!' as /ra͜iz/? Or have I misunderstood? Oct 23, 2022 at 22:30
  • @JacobLee-Hart It's slightly incorrect, indeed. Probably for didactic reasons, since this difference between the underlying form vs. phoneme adds quite a bit of complexity, that might be not relevant for what the book is talking about.
    – lvxferre
    Oct 23, 2022 at 23:49

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