In the previous post (“Do I Always Have to Speak Clearly”, Part 1) you learned the 8 key moments when it is very important to pronounce your words accurately, with good articulation.
Here in Part 2, we will discuss speaking moments when you can relax, mumble a bit, drop sounds and syllables, and stop worrying about pronunciation!
Read on or listen to the audio version instead:
Moments of mumbling don’t make you a “lazy speaker”!
Part of the reason we de-stress parts of words and sentences is to make a stronger contrast with the stressed components . This is because English is a “stress-timed” language. In most other languages (which are “syllable-timed”), each syllable takes up the about the same amount of time. However, in English, there is an underlying rhythm to the stress points, and unstressed syllables get tucked into this rhythm. If you are a musician, you might be able to relate this to the interplay of downbeats and upbeats.
Without this stress-timed rhythmic pattern, an American English speaker will always sound non-native and accented.
Generally speaking, the more casual the speech, the more sounds and syllables can be dropped. (Of course, there are limits: if you constantly mumble, speak with zero intonation range, or otherwise distort the clarity of your message, you have crossed the line!)
Here are 3 situations when you do not have to speak clearly:
1. When using connector words, shorter is better. “Connectors” are words that are important for grammar but have no actual content, meaning they are not people, places, things, actions, or descriptions. Connector words include prepositions (“on”, “over”), conjunctions (“and”, “because”), articles (“a”, “an”, “the”), and pronouns (“she”, “they”).
If you want your American accent to sound authentic, you have to shorten these words if they fall at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence. The vowel is either fully dropped or replaced by a “schwa”. The schwa is all over English – in the dictionary and in the International Phonetic Alphabet it looks like an upside-down lower case E: /ə/. It is an unstressed sound that takes the power out of a vowel. The schwa sounds like a quick mumble, or like a very quick IH or UH sound. It is produced in the center of the mouth and is considered the most neutral sound.
2. In longer words, make the unstressed syllables quick and mumbled, so that the stressed syllables pop. Words with 2 or more syllables will have one or two points of stress. The rest of the syllables should be unstressed. Unstressed syllables are usually pronounced with a schwa replacing the vowel. For example, the word “banana” has 3 A’s, but only the A in the middle syllable, where the stress falls, sounds like a true vowel (the/ae/ sound as in “cat”). The first and third syllables are quick mumbles. The end result: b’NAE’nuh.
3. When the topic of conversation is established, or the audience is familiar with the topic, you can relax the articulation of key words. Key or operative words are the drivers of your message and so, when first introducing them in conversation, you usually will need to pronounce them carefully and clearly. But once everyone knows what’s being discussed, you can under-articulate and say these words more quickly.
Also, if you working in an environment where certain technical terminology is commonly used, you can relax the pronunciation of these terms much more so than if you were speaking to someone unfamiliar with that vocabulary.
Here are some examples of how American English speakers shorten, link, and compress their words:
▪︎ Instead of pronouncing all the vowels in “She can go”, just blend the sounds together and say “Sh’k’nGO”.
▪︎ “Did you eat?” becomes “Dih’dzhuh’eet?” or even “Dzheet?”
▪︎ “For” becomes a quick “fur”. “I’ll buy it for four dollars” gets shortened to: “I’ll buy it f’r four dollars”. However, at the end of a sentence or question (“Who is this for?”), the word “for” is fully pronounced.
▪︎ “Because” gets shortened to “b’kuz” and if we are in a big rush or feeling lazy, we say “kuz”. This is fine for extremely casual situations.
▪︎ Probably the most important word to shorten is the modal verb “can”. If you pronounce it literally with an A sound, as in “a can of soup”, people will get confused and respond with “You can or you can’t??”
Think of the spelling as “k’n”; pronounce it like a fast “kin”. Do not add any stress. And stress the next important word instead. “I k’n GO”.
The word “can’t”, however, is always stressed. “I CAN’T go.” If you get this distinction right, you will never need to use “cannot” again!