Rachel's English

Reduced Vowels


I want to share with you an email that I recently received: Hi Rachel. I'd really like to see a video about reduced vowel sounds in American English. I mean the sound Americans produce in word like 'roses', 'wanted', 'profit', 'plastic', 'before', 'because', and so on, in unstressed syllables. Are they all schwas? Please, I'd love a lesson on these sounds because I'm really confused about this. Thanks.Thank you, for this question, it is an excellent question. 

And I want to start by saying that not all unstressed syllables in American English have a reduced vowel. For example, 'profit' and 'plastic'. Both of these are examples when they retain the 'ih' as in 'sit' [ɪ] sound. It is unaccented, and so that means the duration of the vowel is not as long. And because the vowel doesn't have quite as long, it often doesn't quite solidify into that very clear ih sound. But it is still considered, and written in IPA, as the ih sound, retaining its vowel. Profit. Plastic. And I will do another blog later on other vowels that do retain themselves within an unstressed syllable.

Now, for vowel reduction.The schwa [ə] is the most common reduced vowel sound. It's also the most common vowel sound, period, in American English, so you are probably familiar with it. Some examples: sofa, about. I believe in the how-to video, I described it as the position as if you were going to not say anything: about, sofa. Everything is very neutral, central, relaxed.

Now, there is a second reduced vowel sound. And I want to say at the beginning that I don't believe it is a part of the general American English International Phonetic Alphabet, meaning, I have never seen it, for example, on dictionary.com or the Cambridge dictionary when I look up the transcription of a word. I have, however, seen it in some scholarly journals, and it denotes a sound that I think is worth talking about. This second sound is called the 'barred i' []. A phrase that shows the difference between the two sounds is Rosa's roses. Rosa being a name, ending in a schwa sound. And when we add the 's to show possession - Rosa's - the schwa is intact. Roses, being the plural of rose, has the second, barred i sound. Rosa's roses. It's a subtle difference.

What is the difference?

As I said, it's a little higher in the mouth because the tongue comes up just a little bit. On Rosa, the schwa, uh, my tongue is laying on the bottom of my mouth. Rosa. When I say roses, the tongue moves up just a little bit. It doesn't come up as much as for the 'ih' as in 'sit', but it does come up a little bit to raise that sound. Rosa's roses.

Another very subtle difference in the mouth position for this is, as I said, the tongue comes up a bit, but also the corners of the mouth come out ever so slightly. Rosa's roses. It's just a real slight pull there on both sides. Here is a photo illustrating the very slight difference in the corner of the mouth. On the left is the schwa and on the right is the barred i. You can see here in the corners of the mouth for the barred i that they come slightly up and back. Also, the teeth are slightly farther apart in the barred i sound. This is go accommodate the slight rising of the tongue.I am going to read a set of paired words that comes from a scholarly paper that I did come across on the internet, and I will have it available for download on my webpage.

The first set of words, or the first word in each pair rather, is a noun showing possession, and that noun ends in the schwa sound. The schwa sound remains intact when you add the s for possession. The second word in each of these word pairs is a plural noun. And it's the same as in Rosa's roses, the schwa is in the first word, and this barred i is in the second word. Rosa's roses. Lisa's leases. Russia's rushes. Asia's ages. Ninja's hinges. Did you notice how in the second word of those pairs, the second sound was closer to the 'ih' as in 'sit' than the schwa, which was the first sound? You may be wondering when to use which of these two vowel sounds. As I said, if a word ends in a schwa and you add a suffix, for example an s to make a noun plural, then the schwa remains, like 'sofas'. If it is a noun that ends in an E that is not a schwa, and you add an S to make it plural, like 'roses', then that would be a case where it would be the barred i sound.

If you are feeling confused, or having problems identifying the difference in these two sounds,please don't worry. It's rather subtle, and as I said I haven't ever seen this barred i sound in IPA outside of these technical papers.I want to take a minute to go back to the original email. Roses - as discussed, the barred i sound. Profit, plastic - also as discussed, these two do have unaccented syllables, but the vowel is not reduced. They both retain the 'ih' as in 'sit' vowel sound. Wanted, before, and because - these three words, to my ears, work with either of the two reduced vowel sounds, the barred i or the schwa. I will read them first using the schwa: wanted, because, before. And now with the barred i: wanted, because, before. To me they work either way. The difference between these two reduced vowels is subtle.

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