All joined up: pronunciation in connected speech
Light is always pronounced the same way, right? The form we give in the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries Online – it’s always the same (/lʌɪt/), yeah?
Well yes, and, er… no.
Unfortunately, English isn’t quite so straightforward. It has a number of ‘connected speech processes’, common changes which occur when words are spoken in longer utterances rather than as a standalone ‘citation’ form.
For a word such as light, the citation form is equivalent across our dictionaries. But the final ‘t’ can change depending on the word that follows. In a phrase such as light blue when there is no gap between the words, it is common for that ‘t’ to become a ‘p’; effectively, lipe blue (/lʌɪp bluː/). This is just one type of connected speech process, but there are lots of others. Let’s look at some of the main ones.
Light blue, light colour, good boy, good girl, then move, then go!
In each of these six phrases, the final consonant at the end of the first word often changes to be more like the start of the second. It’s something that particularly affects the sounds /t/, /d/, and /n/, so they sound like lipe blue, like colour, goob boy, goog girl, them move, theng go.
In short phrases, some of us might be less inclined to assimilate these sounds (bear in mind we’re usually unaware we’re doing this anyway), but imagine the following scenarios and it might sound a bit more likely:
“I want to repaint my bedroom. I’m thinking of a light colour, maybe light blue.”
“My daughter’s a really good girl. My son’s a good boy, too.”
“If you can’t stand the neighbours then move; just pack your things then go.”
It’s not the same as the sound ‘disappearing’; the consonant still has an effect on the vowel before it. Light blue does not become lie blue because the first vowel is shorter and there’s a break in the vocal fold vibration. As we’ll see throughout this blog post, this little trio of sounds (/t/, /d/, /n/) is particularly susceptible to their neighbouring sounds, and if one goes, they’re all likely to: “I can’t go!” can sound like “I cangk go!”.
Does she graduate this year?
/s/ and /z/ can be influenced, too, but to a slightly lesser extent. If they’re going to be affected, it will usually be by a following /ʃ/, /ʒ/, or /j/, the sounds at the start of ship, gendarme, and yes, respectively. Their place of articulation shifts back, so Does she may become ‘duzh she’ (/dʌʒ ʃiː/), and this year may become ‘thish year’ (/ðɪʃ jɪə/).
Bed? Of course you have to. See you in the morning.
Less noticeable assimilations involve phrases such as in the, where the /n/ is made with the tongue touching the teeth (the dental position of the), while the ‘th’ (/ð/) of the loses its usual friction buzz. And the voicing may change in of and have, to become like off course and haff to. But these are quite specific!
It think it’s due on Tuesday – would you agree?
There’s one type of assimilation that we do show in some of our dictionaries, as it can occur within words. It is a particular type of assimilation known as coalescence.
In all the examples above, we are still left with the same number of sounds as we started with. But sometimes, two neighbouring sounds can merge and create one new sound. In English, the main instances are where /t/ comes before /j/ and becomes /tʃ/, and where /d/ comes before /j/ to become /dʒ/. A word such as Tuesday in RP – Received Pronunciation – would have once always sounded like ‘tyooz-day’ or ‘tyooz-dee’ (/ˈtjuːzdeɪ/ or /ˈtjuːzdi/), and due would have sounded like ‘dyoo’ (/djuː/). But the /tj/ now commonly merges to /tʃ/ and the /dj/ merges to /dʒ/, resulting in ‘choose-day’ (/ˈtʃuːzdeɪ/) for Tuesday and ‘joo’ (/dʒuː/) for due. We can find it happening across word boundaries, too – Don’t you? as ‘Dohn-choo?’ (/dəʊntʃuː/) and Would you? as ‘Wujoo?’ (/wʊdʒuː/).
Rare birds, rare eggs! Let’s put on a media event.
At the boundary of rare and birds, a vowel (/eə/) goes into a consonant (/b/). But rare eggs has two vowels next to each other. Some speakers will have a momentary pause between the vowels (called hiatus), some speakers will have a glottal stop between them, while others use a form of liaison called a ‘linking /r/’ which makes it sound like rare regs!
In some vowel boundaries, there isn’t even an r in the spelling, but there are particular circumstances where one might appear. This is called an ‘intrusive /r/’, and we can find it in the middle of phrases such as media event (/ˈmiːdɪə(r)ɪˌvɛnt/) above, and idea even (/ʌɪˈdɪə(r)ˌiːvn̩/): That’s an idea even I wouldn’t have thought of. There are other types of liaison and linking consonants possible (such as in two eggs and say it), but the /r/ ones are the best known.
He won’t share the last nectarine.
The /t/ and /d/ consonants may also disappear – a process called elision – in some very specific contexts. The patterns are a little involved but they must be at the end of a syllable and fall between two other consonants. In a phrase such as won’t share we can often hear ‘wohn-share’ (/ˌwəʊnˈʃɛː/), and last nectarine also may not have a clear /t/ at the end of last. In a sentence such as They banned that, the /d/ is likely to disappear, as it often does in and (fish and chips, bread and butter). Elision can also occur in some individual words, such as exactly.
These features are not ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, but simply things we do to help our speech flow more easily. We don’t need to do them; not all speakers will use them, and those that do may not use them all of the time. But they are very common – try listening out for them!