Why “Cogtales” sounds funny (especially for a German)



Now here is a fun fact for those of you that are not studying language.* For me, “Cogtales” sounds exactly like “cocktails” and I cannot say the two words so that they sound differently… Ooops! Now why is that? There are several reasons, in fact.

German, along with a few other languages, has a fun phenomenon called “final devoicing”, which means that for me bad and bat sound exactly the same and I cannot say them in a way that reliably distinguishes d from t. The same holds for words ending in b/p and g/k. Luckily, I never got into trouble with bad bats, feeding feet, or docking dogs!

But stop, what is voicing and why would you want to get rid of it? Voicing refers to the vibration of your vocal chords, and it serves to distinguish sounds such as d and t. They are otherwise very similar and produced at the same place of your vocal tract, the main difference is when your vocal chords vibrate. To test this, just place your hand on your throat (gently, please) and say ssssssss and zzzzzzzz. Or, more subtly, try dadada and tatata.**

The second part of the question was why you would want to remove voicing. Well, it’s less effort to not vibrate your vocal folds and in German there are no words that are the same apart from their last sound in the same way as feed and feet. We call this a minimal pair, and for voicing in the last consonant, German doesn’t really have any of those pairs. In fact, you only know whether a consonant is underlyingly voiced (and thus spelled differently from the way is pronounced) by looking at the plural. For example, I say “Hunt” to refer to one dog and “Hunde” for more than one, but actually they are both spelled with a d and the plural only revealed the secret. So when words are changed, voicing suddenly comes back. Thank you, German language, for confusing me. If you pronounce words the way they are spelled, by the way, it won’t matter to most Germans, they might not even notice the difference.

But even for those who actually distinguish voiced and voiceless word-final consonants, like English does (again, think of bad bats), Cogtales can still sound a lot like cocktails, because in many languages, we assimilate.*** This means we often make adjacent sounds more similar, this is a general trend across languages. So, in the case of Cogtales, the t is produced without vibrations of the vocal folds (again, place your hand on your throat and say tata or dada, you will feel the difference). This lack of vibration can spread to the g in cog, making it a k. We do this simply to make our lives easier when speaking, so long as there is no possible confusion we are actually very sloppy in saying our words. But listeners make up for any sloppiness as much as they can by using what they know about language in general and by considering the context and speaker specifically to make sense of our mumbles. And all that is part of why Sho and I like the name for this blog very much.****

Also, isn’t studying languages and cognition exciting?



* Well, actually I am not a linguist either, but I am very interested in language and how it gets into babies brains.

** To be fair, voicing itself differs across languages, sometimes it means that your vocal folds vibrate  when you say dada and not when you say tata, sometimes it refers to a short moment of vibration only for dada, so your mileage in this exercise may vary. You might also speak one of the very cool languages where there are different ways of voicing, like Korean or Hindi. If you can think of different d sounds, go and find out just how cool your language is.

*** For native English speakers, the o in Cogtales might actually sound different from the o in cocktails, with the latter being shorter. This is a smart strategy to make the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds more obvious, sadly it doesn’t really work with my German ears and brain.

**** I know, I did not go into the way English has various spellings that are pronounced the same way, and why tails are tales. That’s more of a historical issue and I’m no expert on spelling, to be honest.



2 thoughts on “Why “Cogtales” sounds funny (especially for a German)

  1. I love this Christina, thank you for the post! I like it not only because it was well written, but also because its something that fascinates me to much that I included it in a study!

    So imagine you are a wee German child and you’ve learned that the thing you sleep in is a “Bett”. Pretty easy, common word. If we were to test this wee German child in the lab, they should be able to correctly identify* a bed as “Bett” and also notice that “Zoop” is not a good label for a bed. They will also notice that it is not a “Dett”, or a “Bitt”, or a “Bed”, which exhibits their excellent understanding of the phonological structure of sounds that make up the words they know.

    Now imagine our wee German child starts learning English and we present them with the same task. Again, a “Bett” is not a “Zoop”, or a “Dett”, or a “Bitt”. However, maybe their English exposure has taught them that it can be a “Bed” now.

    In my study, I found that words like this are difficult for children to recognize in their new language (English), although they do well with words that are almost identical in each language (fish – Fisch) or completely different (bird – Vogel). If I could work with another population of wee children learning another language, I would really like to look into this further!

    *identify as in look at a picture of a bed upon hearing its label.


    1. Thanks Katie for the Lop (Lob) and for sharing your cool study outcome. How we Germans learn this whole mess is indeed an exciting questions, so it’s good to know someone is looking into it! 😉
      Interesting how strong this final devoicing is. Do you think children later re-acquire the ability to word-finally distinguished voiced and voiceless, or are we forever lost? I still cannot feed my feet! 😉


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