Before moving on to larger units of speech, it makes sense to have a closer look at the second major building block in our phoneme inventory besides consonants: vowels.
Vowels are produced by letting air flow through the articulatory system without any significant obstruction. The vocal cords always vibrate when a vowel is produced and the continuous stream of air makes it possible to lengthen or shorten vowel sounds, a distinction that can differentiate meaning in some languages.
The central qualities that allow us to describe vowels are height, backness and roundedness. They allow us to describe where a vowel sound originates (height and backness) and the shape of the lips during articulation (roundedness).
The above graphic should give you a good idea of height and backness and in what way they affect the quality of vowels.
The vowel chart (originally developed by phonetician Daniel Jones) combines all three features (height, backness, roundedness) into a single model to describe the realization of the so-called cardinal vowels in the oral cavity.
Because the decisive articulator determining the quality of vowel sounds is the tongue, it is possible for vowel quality to change over the duration of articulation if the position of the tongue changes. If the articulatory configuration shifts from one vowel into another the resulting composite sound is a so-called diphthong (or gliding vowel).
Examples for pure vowels:
sit /ɪ/ => high front vowel (unrounded)
foot /ʊ/ => high back vowel (rounded)
man /æ/ => middle central vowel
Examples for diphthongs:
Differences between dialects and sociolects of English are often marked by contrasts in vowel quality.
Suprasegmental phonology / prosodics
Suprasegmental phonology studies intonation and other aspects of speech that extend over more than one segment:
- stress is associated with syllables
- rhythm, tempo and intonation are associated with phrases and sentences
Suprasegmental features like stress, rhythm, tempo, and intonation are sometimes referred to collectively as prosody.
Intonation refers to the contrastive use of pitch or melody in speech (ger. Tonhöhenverlauf, Sprechmelodie). Different levels of pitch (tones) are used in particular sequences (contours) to express a wide range of meanings. For example, we often make use of the difference between a falling and a rising pitch pattern in statements and questions.
- They’re waiting. (information)
- They’re waiting? (question)
- They’re waiting??! (surprise)
The part of a sentence over which a particular intonation pattern extends is called an intonation phrase. The intonation phrase is a unit of information rather than a syntactically defined unit, but it often overlaps with syntactic units like phrases, clauses, or sentences.
Most languages exhibit a general downward trend of pitch (declination) over the course of an intonation phrase. The completion of a full grammatical unit such as a declarative sentence is often signaled by a distinctive fall in pitch. Incomplete utterances, such as mid-sentence clause breaks where the speaker intends to show there is more coming, often exhibit a slight rise in pitch.
Speech is a continuous stream of sounds without a definite borderline between each word. When we communicate with each others, we adapt our pronunciation to our audience and tend to speak at a pace which is convenient for us, rather than speaking clearly. This causes changes to the ‘shape’ of words. As a result, certain words are lost, and some phonemes are linked together while speaking. These changes are described as features of connected speech.
Among the phonological processes that affect connected speech are:
- assimilation (changing sounds)
- elision (losing sounds)
- intrusion and linking (adding or joining sounds between words)
These features preserve rhythm and make the language sound natural.
Features of Connected Speech
Weak Forms: Some English words can occur in a full and a weak form, because English exhibits qualities of a stress-timed language. That means that, while we try to keep an equal interval between stressed syllables and give the phrase rhythm, we tend to leave out non-essential words. Consequently, conjunctions, pronouns and articles (i.e. function words) are often reduced or even lost.
Examples of words which have weak forms are:
- and: fish and chips. (fish´n chips)
- can: She can dance better than I can. (1st “can”= weak, 2nd “can” = full)
- of: A cup of tea.
- have: Have you eaten? (weak)/ Yes, I have. (full)
- should: Well, you should have told me. (“should” and “have” are weak)
Assimilation: This process alters sounds so that they becomes similar (partial assimilation) or identical (total assimilation) to a neighboring or nearby sound.
There are different types of assimilation: regressive/ anticipatory, progressive and reciprocal.
- regressive/ anticipatory: articulation of the following sound will be anticipated. In most cases assimilation is regressive
- progressive: articulation of a sound continues in the next sound, which means it will be maintained. Progressive assimilation is rare.
- reciprocal: two sounds that produces a third one. (Example: don’t you)
Elision: Sounds disappear completely in this process. Usually the vowels from unstressed syllables are elided first.
Common sound deletions
- int(e)rest, sim(i)lar, lib(a)ry, diff(e)rent, t(o)night.
/ t / and / d / = consonants often elided
- chris(t)mas, san(d)wich
/ h /= this sound is often left out
- you shouldn´t (h)ave
Phrasal verbs can show how we link closing consonants and beginning vowels across word boundaries, e.g. Get out ( getout ), Come out ( cumout )
Intrusion and Linking: We often put an extra sound (/j/, /w/, /r/) between two vowel sounds, because it marks the transition sound between the two vowels. This is regarded as intrusion.
/ j /
- I / j / agree, They / j /are here!
/ w /
- I want to/ w/eat, Do/ w/it!
/ r /
- The media / r /are to blame, Law(r)and order.
A lot of times we drag final consonants to initial vowels or vice versa, therefore consonants and vowels can be linked also.
- Get on. (geton ), Not at all. (notatall ), Come on. (comon)
How does connected speech affect our communication?
Native speakers normally do not have a problem with unclear utterances caused by connected speech, as they can assume what the missing part could be within that context. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, sometimes have difficulty predicting which lexical item may or may not appear in a particular context. This already is a significant problem for learners. However, the non-native speaker not only has to recognise the use of reduced forms but also use them himself, unless he wants to risk sounding fairly unnatural. Furthermore, the listener will have trouble to identify the points of focus if the speaker uses too many stressed forms. In conclusion, aspects of connected speech are of significant importance for people who learn a new language.
- monothongs, diphthongs
- suprasegmental phonology /prosodics
- connected speech
- weak forms
- intrusion / linking