32. Schwa elision in English

     One frequent reason why people who learn English as a foreign language sound 'foreign' is because they pronounce certain English words with too many syllables. This may seem strange for two reasons: (1) often, many sounds are dropped in Taiwan English which native speakers would not drop, for example, the final /t/ in but in the phrase but the; and (2) you very likely learned to pronounce many of the words listed below from a teacher's model and/or your English textbook, so it never occurred to you that something like the syllable count would be wrong. But very often, both the teacher and text were wrong, in terms of current colloquial American English. Or they were at least seriously out of date, or in some cases they may have been following a British rather than American model without knowing it.

     A common example is the word family. If you learned your English in Taiwan, you probably learned to pronounce it ['fæm ə li]. If you look this up in a dictionary published in Taiwan it will probably support this. But listen to Merriam-Webster's pronunciation of family. You should hear the reader say ['fæm li]. Try imitating the pronunciation you hear. The dictionary's pronunciation key (which uses ad hoc symbols, not IPA) for the written entry gives the two-syllable version first, then the more careful three-syllable version second.

     What is special about the sound that is omitted? Think about it for a while before reading the next paragraph.

      Here are two answers: (1) it is an unstressed syllable in a word with more than one syllable; and (2) it is the neutral vowel [ə] schwa.

     Although this describes a frequent pattern for schwa elision ('omission') in American English, it doesn't happen in every single case. Telephone, for example, is pronounced ['tɛl ə foʊn] and not ['tɛl foʊn]. So you need to note whether there is schwa elision or not for each separate vocabulary item as you learn or review it. (Since it's come up, how do you pronounce the adjective separate? With three syllables or two? How about the verb to separate? If you're not sure, check the Merriam-Webster dictionary online.)

     Here are a few more examples of words with schwa elision: chocolate ['tʃɔk lət] (not ['tʃɔ kə lət]); vegetable [vɛʤ tə bl̩], and memory ['mɛm ɹi].

     Here is an exercise for you. Some of the words in the list below have schwa elision; others do not. Pronounce each word correctly (the colloquial way most native speakers of General American [GA] do, not the way a Taiwan dictionary will tell you) and say how many syllables it has. Go to an online dictionary with sound files to check the pronunciations, keeping in mind that online dictionaries won't always give the elided version for every word listed below as having schwa elision. You will see the number of syllables each word has if you highlight (ϥ) the area after the word with your mouse. The first number is the number of syllables for General American; if there is a second number, it is for Standard British – note that they are often different! Keep in mind that the numbers reflect tendencies in pronunciation, and they are not absolutes. Variations occur from individual to individual, and in the speech of the same individual on different occasions, or when using different styles or registers.

interesting 3
medicine 3 3 or 2
evening 2
history 2 3
laboratory 4  
similar 3
literal 3 2 or 3
basically 3
every 2
nursery 2
camera 2 3
elementary 4 5
business 2
desperate 2 3
necessary 4 3 or 4
diamond 2 3
virtually 3 or 4
extraordinary 5
cemetery 4 3
different 2
momentary 4 3
general 2
deliberately 4
miniature 3
laughable 3
actually 3
practically 3
aspirin 2
several 2
fricative 3
sophomore 2 3
comfortable 3
ivory 2 3
opera 2
preference 2 3
favorite 2 3
diaper 2
temperature 3
Barbara 2 3
federal 2 3
melody 3
traveling 2 3
classify 3
veterinarian 5
respiratory 4
accidentally 4 5
biology 4
difference 2
mathematics 3
imaginary 5 4
discovery 3 4
average 2 3
caramel 2 3
literature 4 3
reverence 2
mystery 2

    Although schwa elision occurs frequently in both General American and in Standard British English (RP; and certainly in most other English dialects as well), there are differences between the dialects regarding which syllables are dropped in which words. In RP these words, for example, do not usually have schwa elision: family (3), sophomore (3), and discovery (4); but secretary has only three syllables: ['sɛk ɹə tʃɹi], while in GA it has four: ['sɛk ɹə tɛ ɹi]. The word laboratory usually has the same number of syllables in both dialects, but in GA it is pronounced ['læ bɹə tɔ ɹi] and in RP it is [lə 'bɔ ɹə tɹi] GA drops the second syllable, and RP drops the second to the last (or penultimate) syllable though you will again find variation in actual pronunciation of the word among different speakers. Toward is two syllables in RP, one in GA. Patterns of schwa elision can differ within US English as well. In my Minnesota accent, I pronounce orange with just one syllable: [oɹndʒ]; but in General American it is usually pronounced with two syllables. Caramel is pronounced with 3 syllables in some parts of the US; I say it with just two: ['kɑɹ ml̩]. And I pronounce comfortable as ['kʌmf tɚ bl̩]. (Note how the /r/ sound comes after the /t/; this is an example of phonetic metathesis.) Some words seem to be in the middle of a possible change to an elided schwa, e.g. realize can be pronounced with two syllables in casual speech, but normally is pronounced with three. General can be either two, two plus a greatly reduced second syllable, or three syllables. Theory is by now mostly just two syllables. Make sure that you adopt one consistent form of pronunciation – do not mix different accents – to minimize confusion to your listeners.

     A further issue regarding relative rate of speech that we will address before discussing syllable length is contractions. You have learned many contracted forms in English, such as I am = I'm and do not = don't. You were probably told that the contracted form means the same as the full form, but is just a shorter way to say it. But do they really mean the same thing? Find out on the next page!

Next: Contractions

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