English pronunciation: disappearing sounds

english pronunciation disappearing soundsIn English, fluent pronunciation often leads to many sounds disappearing, especially in unstressed syllables, or when two words are linked. The following are a few basic rules for understanding the way sounds disappear in spoken English, and are a good starting point for sounds more natural and fluent when you speak:

The schwa

The schwa (/ə/) is the most common sound in the English language, but it is actually an unpronounced sound. It is common because it occurs most of the time when a syllable is unstressed. It can make life easier speaking English, as most often you do not choose one of the 19 vowel sounds, but use the schwa instead.

For example, we pronounce the ‘a’ in man, but it becomes a schwa sound in ‘businessman’. In this case may not be incorrect to say businessman, but it emphasises man (ie, to demonstrate gender). To sound fluent, and say the word neutrally, the schwa is more appropriate. With other words, pronouncing a letter that should be voiceless will sound like a mistake, because it will shift the stress to the wrong syllable:

  • breakfast (brekf-st, not brek fast)
  • communication (c-munication, not com unication)
  • report (r-port, not re port)

With these examples, fully pronounced letters alters the stress and makes the construction sound strange, possibly even altering the meaning.

The schwa does not cover just one letter or spelling – it is used everywhere.

 

Connecting speech

In English, when one word follows another, fluent speakers often combine them. This can change the way words sound, and cause some letters to disappear.

The schwa is very common here, too – for short words ending in a short vowel and followed by a consonant, such as most prepositions and articles, the schwa is used, almost joining the short word to the next word as an unstressed syllable.

Let’s go to the park. is pronounced Let’s go t-th-park.

When the first word ends with a consonant the next word starts with a vowel, the two words are often smoothly linked, as though one word.

As an extreme an example, That elephant eats eggs. could almost be pronounced as one flowing word, as no real spaces are needed.

When the first word ends with a vowel and the next word starts with a vowel, the vowel sounds become softer, introducing a /w/ or /j/ sound to smoothly link the two.

  • Alone, grow sounds like gro, but grow up sounds like growup.
  • Three eels sounds like three-yeels.

For words finishing ‘r’, the ‘r’ is often not pronounced when linking to a consonant, but becomes pronounced when linking to a vowel sound, for a smoother link:

  • This car’s fast. (This ca-s fast.)
  • This car is fast. (This car is fast.)

When two consonant sounds meet, the consonant is only pronounced once, to smoothly link the two.

  • A bit troubled. (A bit-rubled).
  • There’s a lot to do. (A lot-o-do)

 

Disappearing consonants

When the sounds /t/ or /d/ appear between two consonant sounds, they can often disappear completely from pronunciation.

  • It was the worst lesson ever. (the wors-lesson ever)
  • There was just one problem. (jus-won)

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