Oddities of English Pronunciation
One of the things about English that I like is its malleable or ”stretchy” quality. This can be demonstrated with rubber bands. In the standard greeting, “How are you?,” where is the accent? We can stretch the rubber band on the word ARE, which is often the emphasized syllable when someone is greeting another person after a long absence, or when happily surprised to see someone; but we can also stretch the rubber band on YOU,” which is the more “typical” way the phrase is taught.
But the second person’s response will be different! “I’m fine, thanks. How are YOU?” Here the “stretchy” quality is necessarily attached to the last word, YOU, which is emphasized to add additional information (the respondent has already answered the first speaker’s question, and now wants to elicit information from the first speaker.).
However, this seemingly randomly changeable emphasis is not easy to master for many a speaker from a ‘syllable-timed’ language such as Nepali, and the changeability may seem capricious or mysterious.
There are rules, however! And it behooves us to study them, and moreover, practice them.
Regularity vs. Stretchiness
The thing that gives English its amazing beauty is the combination of regularity (beat, rhythm) with adaptable emphasis (“stretchiness.”) Just as Chinese has a tonal system that relates to lexical meaning, English has a tonal system that refers not to lexicon but to “emoticons”: negation, emphasis, contrasting or additional information, correction, surprise, and choice. The tonal system of English is much more about emotive information and a masterful web of nuance of speaker-to-listener. Other languages all do this of course, too, but in different ways. I invite you the reader to examine your own language(s) to find out how these different areas are utilized in your own L1.
Regularity. First, let’s examine the beat. If we tap out a steady (equal) 1, 2, 1, 2 rhythm for the phrases below, we will find something very odd:
1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2
Irene Carstair’s pet chimpanzee Nimrod dotes on fresh horehound drops.1
(click on: )
All the syllables have a more or less equal stress! This pattern is somewhat rare in English.
- Thanks for this item go to Dwight Bolinger, the well-known linguist, from an oral presentation back in 1985.
Bolinger noted that these kind of equal beat, uniformly-stressed syllables are often used in advertising jingles in English because of the way they stick in our minds. Here are some further examples: (adapted from Bolinger, Intonation and Its Parts: Melody in Spoken English, 1986, p 39)
Just do it! (Nike) (three strong syllables)
Coke adds life! (Coca Cola) (three strong syllables)
Tide takes out dirt plain soap can’t reach. (eight strong syllables) 2
However, in this latter example, let’s keep the steady rhythm, but now, we will add more syllables. To our surprise, the beat remains the same!
|Shak-ti||takes a||way the||dirt that||oth er||soap can||nev er||reach!|
You can imagine this if you think of a metronome ticking away at a consistent speed, a steady tock, tock, tock, tock pattern.
Furthermore, the pattern continues even more astonishingly with 3 syllables, so that there is one strong and two weak:
|Ar-i-el||takes away||all of the||dirt our com-||pet-itor’s||soapis un-||ab-le to||reach!|
(For those of you that don’t intuit this from looking at the above diagram, please listen to the attached audiofile: )
What’s important to notice here is the pattern of strong and weak syllables tied together. In order for a syllable to be a strong one, it has to have meaning (hence: usually content words or verbs), and show emphasis (what does it take away? Dirt!) and contrasting information (other soap), and it keeps the pure sound of the vowel in question. (For more information on the strong sound of vowels in the emphasized syllables, please see information on the Color Vowel Chart, at http://www.colorvowelchart.org.)
- Originally Bollinger took this from a Boraxo TM advertisement, but for ease of illustration I have changed the brand name to a monosyllabic one.)
Stressed or Unstressed: or, what is the most common vowel sound in the English Language? What is also interesting to notice is that the weakened syllables, the second (or third) syllable in each box, loses their strength as the vowel sound turns into the schwa sound. This trend is particularly noticeable in the word ‘can” which in most instances is pronounced as /kin/ or /k’n/. When we want to emphasize “can” (after a series of negations, for example) then and only then is it pronounced as its full-on /kan/ equivalent, as in the following iconic song from classic, “Annie Get Your Gun” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO23WBji_Z0):
Anything you can/k’n/ do, I /k’n/ do better. I /k’n/ do anything better than you.
No you can’t!
Yes I can.
No you can’t!
Yes I can!
In fact, many pronunciation experts agree that the schwa is the most common vowel sound in English!3(Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwa)
This fact is lost upon many speakers whose languages have pure or full vowel sounds and which do not generally rely on vowel “shrinkage” to reduce emphasis of their vowels. In fact, interestingly, Nepali often seems to drop consonants or the /y/ sound: Khana khanubho? Instead of Khana Khanubhayo? Alternatively, raamro layo instead of raamro lagyo. All languages have ways of reducing the given sounds, for various reasons, but the use of the relaxed and unaccented schwa in English is one of the most critical distinctions to separate native speaker from the non-native speaker accents.
Non-native or Native? Nonsense!
The argument as to whether speakers of English should have an English, American, Canadian, South Asian, Chinese, Latin American, Singaporean, New Zealand, Irish, Scottish, or African accent, is, I feel, moot. As people around the globe begin to incorporate “Englishes” into their own vernaculars, there will naturally be a great variety of English available on the planet. The only thing that would be of great benefit, however, is comprehensibility. So therefore, understanding the natural beauty of English in its strong and weak syllable structure would add a great flair to English learners’ Englishes all around the globe, and increase listening comprehension of all types of English, greatly. Will it work? We don’t know. But in order to admire the beauty of English poetry this “strong and weak” syllable phenomenon is a fantastic key to understanding the poetic nature of the language.
Interestingly enough, here “the” is pronounced to rhyme with “he” as a matter of emphasis.
Poetry, for example: Iambic Pentameter
A wonderful way to study the delicious nature of the strong and weak syllables is by reciting poetry. Many a famous poet has made use of meter such as Iambic Pentameter (Shakespearean sonnets, for a prime example.) A somewhat comical – not quite totally accurate — and yet instructive video on the use of Iambic Pentameter (put together by a high school class) can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArrR66OSa0Q)
The use of the strong and weak “foot” is the key not only to basic English pronunciation but to all kinds of poetic understanding as well.
We will continue this discussion on the use of “iambs” or strong and weak syllables in future articles! Meanwhile, enjoy the “heartbeat-like” or “waltz-like” rhythm of spoken English.
(*Ms. Miriam Corneli is currently an English Language Fellow serving in Kathmandu, Nepal. She was most recently teaching English as a Second Language at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and the Santa Fe Community College, New Mexico, USA. Her MA in TESOL is from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She has taught in Nepal, Vietnam, Taiwan, California, Wisconsin, and New Mexico. Her interests are brain-based learning, pronunciation, and the role of positive affect in the classroom.)