Chapter 3: Transcribing Speech Sounds

Adapted from:

© 2006. Indiana University and Michael Gasser.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.


Edition 3.0; 2011-08-30


If you’ve listened carefully to your own pronunciation of English words since you started learning about speech sounds, you might have noticed that the pronunciation that’s transcribed doesn’t always correspond to the way you sometimes say the words and that your pronunciation varies with the situation.

In Unit 2.3, we already saw that the conventions characterizing a particular dialect can change depending on the context the language is used in. What’s 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 segments 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” pronunciation, that is, how the word would sound 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 unit, 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 articulatory processes that we talked about in Units 3.5 and 3.6.

Syllable Stress and Vowels

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.

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 segments, whereas the vowels in unstressed syllables are most commonly produced as [ə], [ɨ], or [ɪ]. We can observe 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:

melody, melodic
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 syllable of repeat is stressed and the vowel is [i], but when the second syllable is unstressed, as in repetition, the vowel is [ə].

Syllable Stress and Alveolar Stops

When a word contains a [t] or [d] in the onset of an unstressed syllable, very often the tongue makes only brief contact with the alveolar ridge, so that instead of a plosive, only a very brief flap [ɾ] is produced. In the following pairs of words, compare the second consonant.

metal, metallic
medal, medallion

In both metal and medal, the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed. Both words are pronounced as [mɛɾl̩]. But in metallic and medallion, the second syllable is stressed. In the onset of a stressed syllable, the segments are pronounced as [th] and [d], respectively.

 Simplifications within Words

When a verb that ends in a vowel takes an affix that begins with a vowel, like in trying, or showing, the vowel in the second syllable might disappear in casual speech. Likewise, if the past-tense affix -ed or the plural -s is added to a word that ends in a cluster of consonants, then some of those consonants might disappear. Some examples are given below:

careful speech casual speech
trying [tɹajɪŋ] [tɹaɪŋ] or [tɹaɪn]
showing [ʃowɪŋ] [ʃoʊŋ] or [ʃoʊn]
asked [æskt] [æst]
thanked [θæŋkt] [θæŋt]
fifths [fɪfθs] [fɪθs]

If a word contains the same consonant twice, with only an unstressed vowel in between, the vowel and second consonant are often deleted, as in these examples:

careful speech casual speech
probably [pɹɑbəbli] [pɹɑbli]
necessary [nɛsəsɛri] [nɛsɛri]
mirror [miɹəɹ] [miɹ]

 Simplifications across Word Boundaries

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

Write your name on this yellow sheet.

Speaking carefully, most people would pronounce the two parts shown in bold as [tj] and[sj]. But when we speed up and allow ourselves to simplify, these may become [tʃ] and [ʃ]. This is an example of assimilation (for more examples, see Unit 3.5). The alveolar and palatal consonants combine to yield single consonants that are at the postalveolar place of articulation, in between the original places.

Simplifications of Frequent Phrases

If a set of words occur together very frequently, then they can be easily predicted by the hearer, so they are good candidates for simplification by the speaker.

 careful speech casual speech
would have [wʊdə]
going to [gʊnə]
got to [gɑɾə]
want to [wɑnə]
have to [hæftə]
supposed to [spostə]
I’m going to [æŋgʊnə] or [æmʊnə]
What did you think? [wʌdʒə θɪŋk]
How have you been? [hawvjə bɪn]
I don’t know [ædəno]

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 of 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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