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4.7  Phonology in the wild

4.7 Phonology in the wild

If you've listened carefully to your own pronunciation of English words since you started learning about phonology in this book, you may have noticed that the pronunciation given doesn't correspond to the way you sometimes say the words, that your pronunciation varies with the situation.

In Chapter 1, we already saw that the conventions characterizing a particular dialect can change depending on the context the language is used in. What is appropriate in one context may not be in another. This applies to pronunciation, as well as to vocabulary and grammar.

The dimension we will be concerned with here is sometimes referred to in terms of how "careful" the speech is. The "care" referred is care on the part of the Speaker. To what extent does the Speaker make an effort to accurately produce each of the phonemes and suprasegmental features of the words? To make sense of this idea, we will have to assume that each word in a dialect has a "careful" or "canonical" pronunciation, that is, how the word would sound (or look in a sign language) if produced in isolation or with some emphasis within a sentence and in a relatively formal setting. In general, as the word gets less emphasis and the setting gets more casual, we find a tendency for Speakers to deviate from the careful pronunciation. These deviations are Speaker-oriented; that is, they can all be seen as making the pronunciation easier in one way or another; they are simplifications. Simplification is possible because in the casual situations where it is most common, the Hearer knows the Speaker well and is better able to predict what the Speaker is saying than a stranger would be. In this section we will look at some examples of the simplifications that occur in casual English. We will see that they can often be described in terms of the same sorts of processes we have seen elsewhere in this chapter. Because simplification sometimes results in phones that do not clearly belong to one or another English phoneme, I'll be using the "[]" notation for pronunciations.


Before we look at the simplifications that happen in English as speech becomes more casual, we need to look at some basic features of English phonology.

English is a language in which syllable stress matters a lot.

First, in English, as in many languages in which stress plays a major role, there are significant differences between stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables permit all of the possible vowel phonemes, whereas unstressed syllables (in my accent) are mainly limited to /ə/, /ɪ/, and /i/, with /ə/ by far the most common. We can see these differences most clearly when we look at how the pronunciation of a syllable changes when it becomes stressed or unstressed. Consider the second syllables in the following related pairs of words.

  1. melody, melodic
  2. repeat, repetition

In melodic the second syllable is stressed, and the vowel is pronounced /ɑ/. In melody it is unstressed, and the vowel is pronounced /ə/. In the second pair, the second vowel is /i/ when it's stressed and /ə/ when it's unstressed.

Like all languages, English has phonotactic constraints on what sequences of vowels and consonants can occur. As in many languages, English phonotactics interacts with morphology, a topic that we will begin looking at in Chapter 7. For now, it is enough to know that English has words like dog and believe that consist of just one "morpheme". That is, you can't break them down into smaller meaningful units. And English has words like dogs and believed consisting of more than one morpheme: dog + -s and believe + -ed. The reason this matters for phonotactics is that the constraints are different for words consisting of one and words consisting of more than one morpheme. Words with just one morpheme normally do not contain sequences of more than one vowel. But words ending in the morpheme -ing may have such sequences.

  1. playing, trying, showing

Similarly the limits on possible sequences of consonants within one-morpheme words are relaxed in words ending in morphemes such as -s and -ed

  1. bumped, asked, thanked, acts, fifths, sixths
By adding suffixes to English words, we can come up with longer sequences of consonants, as many as four in sixths.

These words end in sequences of three or four consonants that do not occur in words with one morpheme: /mpt/, /skt/, /ŋkt/, /kts/, /fθs/, /ksθs/.

General simplifications

As we have just seen, phonotactics is to some extent a matter of degree. There are constraints that apply to English words of one morpheme, but these are relaxed in words of more than one morpheme, which may result in sequences of vowels or consonants that would otherwise seem odd to English speakers. Consider first cases where the result is a sequence of more than one vowel, as in the words in 3 above. While these may be pronounced as such in careful speech, in casual speech, they may become a single vowel. This is especially likely when the -ing suffix would have the pronunciation [ən] as opposed to [ɪŋ]. So these three words could be pronounced [plen], [trayn], and [šon] in casual speech. In each case the /ə/ has been deleted to simplify the pronunciation.

In casual speech, English speakers may simplify sequences of vowels or consonants by dropping one of them.

The same thing can happen with sequences of consonants that are "odd" for English, as in 4 above. In some accents, these words are never pronounced with the sequence of three or four consonants that is implied by the spelling. In others, such as my accent, they are pronounced this way in careful speech but lose one of the consonants in casual speech, especially when the next word also begins with a consonant. So acts becomes [æks], thanked becomes [θæŋt], and fifths becomes [fɪθs].

Other possible simplifications may occur across the boundaries between words. Consider what happens when an alveolar consonant ends up before a /y/, as in two places in the following sentence.

  1. Write your name on this yellow sheet.

Speaking carefully, most people would pronounce the two parts shown in bold as [ty] and [sy]. But when we speed up and allow ourselves to simplify, these may become [č] and [š]. This is an example of assimilation. The alveolar and palatal consonants combine to yield single consonants that are at the postalveolar place of articulation, which is in between the original places. Note, however, that this process must somehow be constrained. For example, in my accent the [ty] of that yellow sheet would never become [č], no matter how casually I'm speaking (instead the [t] would become a glottal stop, [ʔ]). The constraints appear to be quite complicated, and I won't have more to say about them, except that they are clearly related to the stress of the words on either side of the boundary.

A third tendency is for the appearance of the same consonant twice with an unstressed vowel in between to be simplified through the deletion of the vowel and the reduction to a single consonant. Here are some examples, with the careful pronunciation first, then the simplified pronunciation.

  1. probably: ['prɑbəbli, 'prɑbli]
  2. necessary: ['nɛsə,sɛri, 'nɛ,sɛri]
  3. terrorism: ['tɛrə,rɪzəm, 'tɛ,rɪzəm]

Simplifications specific to particular words

We have seen that there are simplifications that can happen in English speech to particular sequences of phonemes, independent of what word they occur in. Most of the familiar simplifications that characterize English casual speech, however, apply to particular words and not to others.

One possibility is a word that for whatever reason has a sequence of phonemes within it that is unusual for English. A good example is the word sandwich. In some accents, such as mine, this has the careful pronunciation ['sændwɪč]. But the sequence [ndw] in the middle of this word is very rare in English, and for many people the word has the alternate pronunciation ['sæmwɪč] in casual speech. (Of course for many other people this may be the only pronunciation of this word.) Note, however, that this tendency seems to be confined to this word. At least in my accent, it is not possible to simplify the sequence [ndw] similarly in a word such as bandwidth.

Why probably turns into ['prɑli]

The frequency of a word has a clear effect on its tendency to be simplified. In 6 above we saw a simplified pronunciation for the word probably, but because this word is common, this may also represent the careful pronunciation for some speakers. In fact the word can undergo further simplifications: to ['prɑli] and even [pray].

Words that are not very informative also have a strong tendency to be simplified, probably because they are more predictable from the linguistic context than words that convey more information. Since many such words in English are also very common, they appear more often in their simplified form than in their canonical, careful pronunciation, which is normally only appropriate when they are stressed. Here is a partial list of these words, showing for each at least two pronunciations, ranging from the canonical, stressed, careful pronunciation to the most unstressed and casual.

  1. you: [yu, yə]
  2. he: [hi, i]
  3. him: [hɪm, ɪm]
  4. them: [ðɛm, əm]
  5. our: [awr, ɑr]
  6. of: [ʌv, əv, ə]
  7. to: [tu, tə]
  8. for: [fɔr, fər]
  9. out: [awt, at]
  10. am: [æm, əm, m]
  11. is: [ɪz, əz, z, s]
  12. are: [ɑr, ər, ə]
  13. have: [hæv, əv, v]
  14. did: [dɪd, dəd, d]
  15. will: [wɪl, wəl, əl, l]
  16. can: [kæn, kən]
  17. would: [wʊd, əd, d]
  18. while: [wayl, wal]
  19. because: [bɪ'kɔz, bɪ'kʌz, kʌz, kəz]
  20. how: [haw, ha]

Notice that many of these variants are predictable if we recall that unstressed vowels tend to be pronounced as [ə]. But not all vowels get reduced to [ə]. In some words the diphthongs [aw] and (less often) [ay] can lose their second element, becoming simply [a] (or [ɑ] before [r]). The pronunciation of did as [d] also agrees with the general tendency for a repeated consonant to merge into a single consonant. However, in other words, an initial or final consonant is dropped in a way that would not be predictable from the general tendencies discussed above. Thus it appears that some of these simplifications are conventional.

Finally, frequently occurring sequences of words are often simplified, especially when they consist of words from the group just illustrated. Some of these simplifications are so frequent that they represent the careful pronunciation, and they have even entered English orthography as contractions such as it's, they're, doesn't, and I'd. Most of these pronunciations are predictable from the simplified forms we have already encountered, but a few, such as don't (from [du nɑt]) and won't (from [wɪl nɑt]) are not. For some there are multiple pronunciations, varying in how casual and unstressed they sound. Here are a few of these.

  1. I'm: [aym, am, əm]
  2. they're: [ðɛr, ðər]
  3. we're: [wɪr, wər]
  4. wouldn't: ['wʊdn̩t, 'wʊdn̩]

Also very common are these combinations with have and to as the second word.

  1. would (should, could) have: ['wʊɾə]
  2. going to: ['gənə]
  3. got to: [gɑɾə]
  4. want to: [wɑnə]
  5. have to: [hæftə]
  6. has to: [hæstə]
  7. supposed to: ['spostə]
  8. trying to: ['traynə, 'tranə]

Notice how in 35 the two [t]s merge into one, pronounced as the tap [ɾ], and how they disappear altogether in 36.

Sequences of words may have their own conventional casual pronunciation: I'm going to [amənə].

Finally, let's see how some frequent sequences of three or more words are pronounced in very casual speech (in my accent).

  1. You wouldn't have thought so. [yə,wʊdn̩ə 'θɔt ,so]
  2. What did you think? [,wʌǰə 'θɪŋk]
  3. How has he been? [,hazi 'bɪn]
  4. I am going to look. [,amənə 'lʊk]
  5. I don't know. [,aɾə 'no]

Let's summarize what we found for simplified speech in English. First, how likely a word or sequence of words is to be simplified depends on at least on these factors.

  • How frequent the form is
  • How little information the form carries
  • How casual the situation is

Second, the simplifications that occur involve assimilation; the reduction of vowels, often to [ə]; the merging of sequences of the same consonant; the deletion of [ə] and some initial or final consonants. Many of these processes are general processes in the language. In some cases, however, the simplifications are conventions associated with particular words and must be learned separately.

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