Letters to the Professor

When listening to native speakers they do not seem to say 'one hundred' or 'one kilometre' properly. The 'one' sounds more like an 'er' sound. Can you please explain to me why this is and if I should try to do it too? Małgorzata J., Warszawa.

Dear Malgorzata,

Yes, I know I answered this letter in the last issue. We say 'a hundred' usually but I also promised to continue on the same topic: the importance of weak forms in spoken English. But I have a problem. Writing about the sound of English is rather like trying to describe a spiral staircase without using your hands! But if this article is difficult for me to write, it will also be difficult for you to read - unless you read bits of it aloud. So please do NOT read this article on a tram or in a railway carriage or any public place - people will think you have gone mad as you try to make the strange sounds that I suggest! So if you are now sitting alone, you can continue reading.

I know that many of our readers are used to the International Phonetic Alphabet, at least when looking up a new word in a dictionary; but some readers are not, and so I shall try and write this article without using those strange characters of the IPA. But there is one very common sound in English for which there is no written letter - we call it the 'schwa' and it can be represented in writing by either an 'a', 'e', 'o', or 'u'! (note that only the vowel 'i' is missing from this list). In fact paradoxically this sound is the most commonly used sound in spoken English, whilst being the least important! It is the unstressed vowel sound in 'woman', 'father', 'today', 'unhappy' - and the 'er' sound that you mention in your letter. Dictionaries show this 'schwa' sound using an 'e' printed upside-down, but to keep to my promise of not using phonetic symbols I shall use 'er' instead, just as you did in your original letter.

Why is 'i' not weakened to 'er' like all the other long vowel sounds? Well, think about the position of your tongue in your mouth when you make each of the vowel sounds (go on, try them out - there's no one listening). If you just relax your mouth when saying 'team' you get 'tim' - in other words, the weak form of 'ee' words is a short 'i' sound, whereas trying the same relaxation with all the other vowel sounds produces an 'er'. Try relaxing whilst saying each of 'cake, cart, boot, boat' - see what I mean? So 'ee' words have their weak forms too, but these are pronounced with a short 'i' in unstressed positions.

In spoken English, only the stressed syllable of a word (the one pre'ceded by an a'postrophe in most 'dictionaries, or printed in bold letters in some textbooks) receives its full vowel value. Other vowels tend to get only touched lightly in passing and shortened in the process, or ignored altogether. For example 'vegetable' is pronounced 'veg-ter-bl' NOT '*ve-jet-tay-bull*'. But this tendency applies not only to words of more than one syllable, but to whole phrases within a sentence, with short unimportant words being pronounced weakly with shortened vowels.

But many of the common short words in English are just structural and carry no meaning in themselves (a, the, and, etc and the auxiliary verbs to be and to have) and so are never stressed. This means that many common words are usually not pronounced as you might expect. Take a common word like 'and'. Then say 'fish and chips' - no, say it quickly! - 'fish and chips'. How did you pronounce the word 'and'? Some of you pronounced it 'ern' and some 'n'. I hope no one pronounced it the way you were first taught - stretching your mouth wide open sideways as if to say 'apple', and then pronouncing all three letters including the 'd'. Good! You now understand the reason for 'weak forms' in spoken English. Many short unimportant words are too much work to pronounce fully for their value (consider the difficulty in pronouncing the 'd' of 'and' before the 'ch' of 'chips'), and so are simplified. Spoken English is essentially easy to speak - in other words you need to be lazy to speak it properly!

Here are a few more examples of common words that are almost always pronounced weakly: 'as' (erz), 'but' (bert), 'than' (thern), 'them' (therm), 'us' (ers), 'does' (derz), 'are' (er), 'can' (kern), 'was' (werz) and many others. So if you think that 'to' and 'two' are pronounced the same in English, you will be wrong 98% of the time: because only when the word 'to' is the last word in a sentence, as in the question "Where are you going to?" is the word stressed and given its full 'u' sound. In all other cases 'to' is pronounced 'ter'. Just try Hamlet's famous line "To be, or not to be". It should sound like "ter bee, or not ter be". If it sounds like "Two bee or not two bee" you need to listen to native speakers and tapes and TV and film more carefully. But I know that in your case, Małgorzata, you do listen carefully - hence your first question. So keep up this good habit and your spoken English will improve a lot, and your listening comprehension even more so. What's more, speaking English will get easier - remember what I said about good spoken English being essentially lazy!


John Williams