In a nutshell
The final letter of the alphabet is also the least used – a random sampling of English would be expected to yield fewer than 8 ‘z’s per 10,000 letters. Pleasingly, ‘z’ can almost always be relied upon to be pronounced with a ‘z is for zoo’ sound.
Zee or zed?
Americans might get a surprise when they hear someone from Canada, Britain or Australia say the alphabet. The first 25 letters are as expected but suddenly they hear a jarring ‘zed’ instead of ‘zee’ at the end’ Why is this so?
The answer is that the ‘zed’ in English comes from the Old French ‘zede’. Over the years many varieties sprang up, including ‘zee’, (which actually started in Britain, but made its way to America in the 1600s). In 1828, Noah Webster, in compiling an American English dictionary declared it should be ‘zee’ and eventually this became the standard across the USA.
It is hard to know how long this difference will last because ‘zed’ is under attack from the classic alphabet song and from shows like Sesame Street. Many children outside America learn it as ‘zee’ and then re-learn it at school as ‘zed’. As Australians ourselves, we acknowledge how much more logical ‘zee’ is and how nicely it rhymes with the other letters – yet we still want ‘zed’ to survive and prosper!
Letter z song
Here is a quick, lively song from Sesame Street, in which of course the letter z is said as ‘zee’:
And here is a short scene from The Big Comfy Couch, from Canada, about the letter ‘zed’:
How to correctly pronounce ‘z’ and ‘s’
The ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds are very similar – indeed they involve identical lip, tongue and mouth positions. The difference occurs because ‘z’ is voiced – you use your voice box – whereas ‘s’ is unvoiced. Newcomers to English may find this distinction difficult – hopefully this podcast will help.
It is also important to note that sometimes even when a word contains an ‘s’, the ‘z’ sound is made. Some examples of this are the words ‘rose’, ‘please’ and ‘days’ – to a native English speaker’s ears, an ‘s’ sound at the end of these words is a bit strange. Actually, even in the previous sentence there another two words like this – both ‘is’ and ‘words’ conclude with a ‘z’ sound.
If we eat mozzarella pizza on the piazza the paparazzi might see us
‘Double z’ is almost always simply pronounced with the normal ‘z’ sound. However, for some words (words that have been borrowed from Italian), ‘zz’ is actually said as ‘ts’. ‘Pizza’ is the only really common word like this, but it is worth knowing if you are a non-native English speaker as ‘peet-suh’ sounds normal but ‘pizz-uh’ does not!
‘I Spy’ words
‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…’ is a great game to play to reinforce the sound that a letter makes and it can be a fun game to kill some time – for example on a long car trip.
Here is a selection of short words starting with ‘z’ for you use (there are very few!):
zoo, zebra, zipper, zigzag, zookeeper.
The Letter Z Worksheets
This letter z worksheet gives your child lots of opportunities to practice writing capital Z.
This letter z worksheet focuses on the lower case letter z.
This worksheet gives your child an introduction to the basic sound that ‘z’ makes, and also allows them to practice writing the capital and lower case letter z.
This worksheet provides a further opportunity for your child to become familiar with the letter z sound.