Sometimes we meet a new client who wants to improve his or her American accent, but who already has very good English pronunciation. During the initial interview, a minute or two might go by where no traces of consonant or vowel substitutions occur, the intonation is fully American in nature, and even the oral posture is native-authentic.
But then it happens. One of the “connector words”, too perfectly pronounced. Often it’s the preposition “to”, being pronounced “tooh” before a word starting with a consonant. “…tooh say” or “tooh do” or “tooh live”. It’s a dead giveaway.
Native-born Americans shorten “to” and many other connecting words, when they fall at the beginning or middle of a sentence. We expect to hear “t’say”, “t’do” and “t’live”. The shortening of the unstressed word creates, by contrast, more weight on the more important stressed word that follows.
Words (and syllables) are shortened by replacing a full vowel (such as OO, or EE, or AH) with a schwa. The symbol for this sound is /ə/ and it sounds like a very short, mumbled voiced noise, closest to a very short UH or IH.
The schwa takes the power out of the vowel, at its most potent reducing it to something almost inaudible. It serves as a bridge between two consonants (e.g. the T and the S in “to say”) without actually blending them together. (Note: “to” before a word starting with a vowel should be pronounced in its unreduced form, and blended with the word following, e.g. “toow_a show”.)
Listen to the three phrases “to say”, “to do”, and “to live” here. First, the “accented” version (without the schwa):
And now to the standard American version (with the schwa):
Other words in English that are shortened include “can” (=> k’n), “of” ( => ‘v), and “for” (=> f’r). Try this sentence: “It’s a lot of work for him, and he needs to see once and for all what others can do to help him.” If you read it without shortened connectors, it might have sounded like:
With shortened connectors, you might instead hear: “It’s a lot ‘v work f’r him and he needs t’see once and f’rall what others kin do t’help him.”
Or even: “It’s a lotta work f’r’im an’ee needs t’see once’n f’rall what others kin do t’help’im.
Practice this: choose an article from a newspaper or magazine, highlight every “to” you find, and then read those two-word phrases out loud until the rhythm feels natural. T’get our accent, don’t delay…get t’work on this t’day!