Learning pronunciation “rules” separately can be really confusing. It will seem like English is an inconsistent mess when it comes to pronunciation! Is English spelling misleading? Absolutely! Are there ways in which English pronunciation is predictable? Absolutely!
This post will talk about a general topic. Hopefully by the end of reading it, you’ll say “Oh! That’s (one reason) why English sounds that way!”
First things first, let’s look over some helpful terms:
What do we need to know about syllables? The most important thing to know about syllables is that the heart of a syllable is a vowel sound. This means that syllable-timed languages love vowels, so they would never reduce a vowel with a schwa. In fact, schwa doesn’t even exist in languages like Spanish.
What’s a stressed syllable? Languages show syllable stress in different ways. It’s either going to be the syllables that is the loudest, longest, or has the highest pitch. (Yavas 2020) A great way to find (primary) stress in English is to pretend you’re screaming the word out the window. For a word like elephant, are you yelling Elephant, eLEphant, or elePHANT? (If you’re not sure where the primary stress falls, you can always look it up in a dictionary.)
Why is stress important? Because of the schwa. Schwa sounds like “uh” and is a very common vowel sound in American English. In fact, when you hear a term like “reduced form”, it usually means that a vowel is being replaced by a schwa. The most important thing to know about the schwa is that it can never replace a vowel in a stressed syllable. You can use the joke “Be like a schwa – never stressed” to remember this.
Now, let’s get into it!
One of the ways linguists categorize languages is called “syllable-timed” versus “stress-timed” languages. This has to do with the rhythm of the language. A syllable-timed language is like Spanish. These languages pronounce each vowel sound fully.
Estoy aprendiendo inglés.
|Estoy aprendiendo inglés.|
|1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1|
On the other hand, languages like English are called “stress-timed”. Instead of each vowel being said with the same amount of time, each stressed syllable is said with the same amount of time. On a word level, stressed syllables are longer than unstressed.
|2 1 2 1 1|
On a sentence level, English speakers stress certain words more than others. They stress the most important words and reduce the less important words. The words which are most likely to be reduced are determiners (e.g. this, that), prepositions (e.g. to, from), articles (e.g. the, a), conjunctions (e.g. and, but), pronouns (e.g. he, she, they). These words are really common in English, so it’s important to be familiar with their reduced forms, as that it what you will most likely hear. Here are some common words:
|Full form||Reduced form|
|a – /eI/||/ə/|
|the /ði/ or /ðɛ/||/ðə/|
|and – /ænd/||/ənd/ or /ən/ or /n/|
|but – /bʌt/||/bət/|
|at – /æt/||/ət/|
|to – /tu/||/tə/|
How can this help me learn English?
When it comes to pronunciation and listening comprehension, focusing on words which are used all the time is very helpful. The next time you are listening to English, you can ask yourself before repeating it yourself:
- Which words were stressed?
- Which words were reduced?
The main take-away is that stress is very important in English. If a syllable is unstressed, the vowel might be reduced to a schwa. Get familiar with reduced forms, so that you can are better prepared to understand them the next time you hear them.