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Reduced Forms of English Words

This item is a version of a lecture given on a number of occasions to

the annual Summer Course in English Phonetics at University College
1. English-speakers, more than the speakers of most other languages,
tend to give great weight to important syllables and much of the time
to treat relatively neglectfully the less important syllables of words.
This custom has very notable effects on the changes of form which
words undergo in English. The kinds of process that bring about these
frequent alterations to the shapes of words can be summarised under
of assimilation(including
coalescence), elision, compression and liaison /li`ezn/.
2. Uttered entirely alone, words take their "citation" or "lexical" forms
as shown in dictionaries, but the majority of the most commonly used
English words frequently change in form (losing and/or changing
phonemes) as they undergo reduced articulations. These reductions
are mainly the results of pressures exerted by the process of
rhythmically integrating groups of words which the speaker wishes to
convey to be unified grammatical entities.
3. Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of these reduced forms of words
need regularly be adopted by EFL users. Only forty-odd words are the
exceptions which constitute this fraction. These are dealt with under
"Weakform Words & Contractions" elsewhere on this Website. Let's
look briefly at each of the categories we listed above .
4. Assimilation (ie alteration of an original sound by the influence of
an adjacent one: the term was recorded as applied to consonants in
OED from 1871) is a topic that the ordinary EFL user needn't much
worry about because practically all the assimilations that arise in
continuous speech are "optional". That is to say, among native
speakers they are very frequent but sporadic rather than invariable.
Perhaps the most regularly occurring types are from / s / or / z / to / /
or / / as in apprenticeship /`prentp/, bus-shelter / `b
elt /, dress shop/`dre p/, ice-show /`a /, less sure /'le
`/, Miss Jones /m `nz/, S-shaped /`e ept/ and has she / `h
i /etc. The only important thing for the EFL user to remember is not to
artificially slow down articulation and thus spoil the fluency of an
utterance in order to produce for example an unchanged /z/ in is she,
or /s/ in horse shoe / `h u/ or `tortoise-shell /`tt el /. With
fluent rhythm the articulation can usually be left to take care of itself.
Certain assimilations involve coalescence, notably of /t/ and /d/ with
following /j/ as in did you uttered as / `du /. Sometimes Tuesday is
represented (usually by sneering writers) as uttered by some
speakers asChewsday and dew as Jew, etc. Expression of disapproval
of such usages is now very old-fashioned. EFL users should feel free
to adopt these coalescent forms if they find them more comfortable to
5. One of the very small number of assimilations that it would sound
abnormal not to make is the sharpening to / s / of the s of used
to when it means accustomed to. The verb use has / z / for its s in all
other circumstances. The same sort of thing often happens

to supposed to but it won't sound strange if you don't sharpen

the s there nor sharpen the traditional /v/ to / f / in have to or of
course or the /z/ to /s/ in has to though a great many speakers do
make those assimilations very frequently.
6. You may be surprised to see that dictionaries show as the usual
forms for gooseberry, raspberry, fivepence, newspaper / `gzbri,
`rzbri, `fafpns, `njuspep / but these pronunciations are not
continuous-speech adaptations, just simply common invariable forms
for most speakers. (In Northern England one finds in some cases
differences from General British in such items.)
7. The outstanding thing that makes assimilation a notable EFL topic
is the strong tendency for speakers of Dutch, French, Greek and
various Slavonic and African languages to soften a sharp consonant at
the end of a word followed by another beginning with a soft
consonant. Such people tend to produce versions which suggest the
spellings bag `door, `baizeball, `buzz route, `eyesberg, `Jews' bottle,
`wodgeman, `rizzwatch, robe `ladder, rose `beef and on `whore's
back for back `door, `baseball, `bus route, `iceberg, `juice bottle,
`watchman, `wristwatch, rope `ladder, roast `beef and on `horseback.
8. The reverse of this is done by some eg Dutch speakers. They may
seem to be saying dretful, fock patches orflackpoles when they are
aiming to say the English words dreadful, fog patches or flagpoles.
Yorkshire people are the only ones in the English-speaking world with
this tendency: eg they (including in his day the well-known author J. B.
Priestley) tend to pronounce Bradford as Bratford, actually usually
[`brfd]. Many EFL users tend to produce yet other types of
assimilations that sound very abnormal such as I'd love one with a
/v/ instead of the normal / w / beginning the word /wn/.
9. Elision (the omission of a speech sound; linguistic use noted by
OED from 1581) is likewise (weakform words aside) not an important
topic for the EFL user with some very minor exceptions.
Expressions like`breaststroke, first `stop, masked `ball, next
`time naturally tend to lose the final / t / of the first word. Any obvious
slowing down of the natural appropriate rate of utterance in order to
manage to produce such a / t / is best avoided. Even what might be
written good `eel, take `air, pry `minister and extra `tension for good
`minister and extra
at`tention are
commonplace native-speaker variants.
10. It is now, despite the impression given by many dictionaries, quite
unusual to make four syllables of the many common ultimately Latinderived adverbs like actually, generally, obviously, usually etc or even
to to maketemporarily different from temporally, though in this word
many British speakers now postpone the main stress saying
/temp`rerli/ as Americans generally do.
11. English speakers generally do not elide the final plosive of a word
which is closely followed by another word that begins with an
obstruent (ie a plosive, affricate or fricative) or nasal consonant but
they do not release it. If one does release such a plosive, the
unfortunate result is strikingly unnatural in pronunciations like take
and postman,

windmill or grandfather similarly produced. These sound too much

liketake a care, posterman, windowmill and grander father.
12 One needs to be constantly on guard against being misled by our
very archaic spelling into restoring any of the very numerous
historical elisions which are to be seen in words such as blackguard /
`blgd /, Christmas / `krsms /, cupboard / `kbd /, evening /
`ivn /, several / `sevrl / soften / `sfn / etc (contrast often which
has a very common spelling-influenced pronunciation with its former /
t / restored ). One now even hears an / l / in calm from a very small
minority of English people as one can from many Americans. EFL
users should also be careful not to elide the second element of the
English affricates / / and / / which would produce outlandish
expressions sounding like what one might write as villid `church, 8 G
`Wells and `what
chain rather
than village
G.`Wells and `watch chain.
13. It's necessary also to avoid simplifying awkward consonant
sequences in ways that English speakers don't adopt. For example,
for months / mn / is quite unacceptably abnormal whereas omitting
the / / to give / mns / is perfectly alright. Fifths and twelfths tend to
contain co-articulatory blendings of two or more consonants produced
simultaneously by native English speakers. LPD includes the
versions / fs / and / twels / which it records (one may be confident
from the refraining from adverse comment) as unremarkable and
must be far safer for the EFL speaker to adopt than to attempt a triple
or quadruple consonant ending. With the form / sks / for sixths LPD is
less tolerant labelling it as "casual" possibly bowing to the many who
would profess to be shocked if a teacher were found to be
distinguish sixths from six. Something which most GB speakers and
many Americans had come to accept very widely by the end of the
twentieth century was the reduction in any word of final / -sts / to
simply /-st /. Such versions now constantly pass unnoticed even in
isolated words, though the dictionaries and textbooks are being very
slow getting round to acknowledging this so widespread failure to
differentiate singular and plural in such words.
14. Compression (first proposed as a institutionalised linguistic term
in Windsor Lewis 1969 A Guide to English Pronunciation) is the
reduction of articulatory movement typically resulting in elimination
of a syllable as when / `redi / becomes /`redj/ or / `fl /
becomes / `flw /. This can also largely be disregarded by the EFL
user. However, it is desirable to have the normally reduced versions
not making three clear syllables of closing-diphthong-plus-schwa
like fireman and powerful or they may well sound over-carefully
enunciated. Similarly words like empire and `rush hour won't sound
natural if uttered as three syllables. Most word-internal syllabic
consonants as in eg fattening or settler or civilisation are constantly
compressed into unsyllabic ones. Note the compression loops used in
the LPD (the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary) eg between the / l /
and the final schwa at settler /set l/ to convey this alternation and

the useful account in LPD of the phenomenon at its alphabetical entry

"compression". Younger speakers are currently increasingly tending to
avoid such "de-syllabications". In extremes not recommendable for
imitation they may introduce schwas which can sound pedantic or
fussy and where some have probably never before existed eg
in accidentally, amply, assembly, trembling, fattening, maddening,
handling, spindly, wobbling etc.
15. Liaison (in OED as an institutionalised linguistic term first
recorded in 1884; "linking r" is not noted by the OED before 1950 but
Daniel Jones introduced its use in the 1920s; it seems to have
appeared first in print in Ida Ward's Phonetics of English in 1929). This
phenomenon is the linking to a following word of a preceding one by
employment of a final sound not present in the isolate form of the first
word. It's found in English when a word ending in a non-close vocalic
sound, / , , / or a schwa [], is closely followed by a word
beginning with any vocalic sound (ie vowel or diphthong). Most such
words have a final -r (or -re) in their spelling; if not, the / r / used is
often labelled 'intrusive' and is sometimes criticised by purists (ie
people who set themselves up as arbiters of how other people should
speak), even when its use is virtually universal as in the phrase the
idea / r /of it.
16. Omission of linking / r / is in many cases quite "optional" but its
absence from common expressions usually uttered with close
rhythmic integration can sound quite strange. So EFL users are best
advised to cultivate it in eg phrases such as our own, or else, better
and better, later on, far off, other end, pair of etc. The purists like to
complain that people say Laura Norder instead of law and order. Note
also the jokey mock book-title "Dog's Delight by Nora Bone" (gnaw /
r / a bone). But huge numbers of people of unimpeachable education
say such things and even also draw/r/ing and I saw / r / it without
noticing that they're doing so and without being noticed as doing so
by the great majority of other speakers. These last two types need not
be particularly cultivated by EFL users.