And the weak shall be made strong – if accented
Previously on the OxfordWords blog, I described some connected speech processes, and how we sometimes change the pronunciations of words depending on the sounds in neighbouring words (e.g. light next to blue).
A related idea is that of weak forms. Many function words have multiple pronunciations, dependent on whether they are accented (produced with particular emphasis or prominence within a sentence, or said in isolation) or unaccented. If they are accented, we use the word’s strong form. If unaccented, we usually use its weak form. Because function words are not very commonly accented in flowing speech, the weak forms are much more common. There are also some occasions where content words may have weak forms, too.
How do they differ? Compared with strong forms, weak forms of a word will often have shorter vowels and consonants, vowels that are more ‘reduced’ (more likely to be one of /ə, ɪ, ʊ/), and sounds are more likely to be elided (dropped).
In a sentence such as I went to the club at nine, for words like at and to the weak forms are more commonly used – /ət/ and /tə/ than /at/ and /tuː/. Such seemingly subtle differences have a really big effect for us as listeners.
In the passage below, a typical British English speaker would use a wide range of weak forms:
In an old house he had found a clock. For now it was on his mantlepiece, but John thought the clock may be worth some money and had planned to take it to an acquaintance who would give it a look. As soon as he could, he took it to her. “Do you think that I could get much from selling it?” he asked.
If only using strong forms, the passage would look and sound like this:
This sounds very stilted, as if every word is over-emphasized. It can feel uncomfortable to listen to, more difficult to pick out the most important words, and follow the story. For some readers, it may remind them of how their children sound when first learning to read. It is more likely to sound something like this:
What’s different is that these ‘weak forms’ subconsciously help us to distinguish between the words we hear. The reduced vowels, shorter sounds, and elided sounds all create a form of ‘background’ from which the accented words stand out. The words in bold were the ones whose pronunciations were swapped:
In an old house he had found a clock. For now it was on his mantlepiece, but John thought the clock might be worth some money and had planned to take it to an acquaintance who would give it a look. As soon as he could, he took it to her. “Do you think that I could get much from selling it?” he asked.
Not all function words have a recognized weak form – look at it, for example. And we might still use strong forms of function words for contrast, emphasis, or in particular sentence positions. But more than 40 words do have a recognized weak form, as do a few content words – particularly titles – such as Saint and Sir.
Weak forms of the definite and indefinite articles the and a are far more common than their strong forms (although ironically if you are reading this sentence aloud you probably just used their strong forms /ðiː/ and /eɪ/ rather than /ðə/, /ə/), while I is most commonly /ʌɪ/ except for in rapid phrases such as I don’t know where some speakers may reduce it to /ə/. There’s certainly considerable evidence that more rapid speech sees a greater likelihood of such changes.
What’s incredible is that we acquire and adapt to these different forms, and switch between them seamlessly. Even though /ə/ is potentially a weak form pronunciation of are, a, her, or and even of, we use context to help determine the meaning. I need /ə/ book could be a book or her book. We’d probably assume the former unless the preceding sentence was something like Have you seen Sally? I need /ə/ book.
In conclusion? How we manage the weak is more impressive than how we manage the strong!