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Modification of phonemes in speech

Every phoneme displays a vast range of variation in connected speech. Among the different types of variation we distinguish idiolectal / 'idiəlektl /- индивидуальный, diaphonic and allophonic variation.

Idiolectal variation embraces the individual peculiarities of articulating sounds, which are caused by the shape and form of the speaker’s speech organs and by his articulatory habits. For instance, a speaker may mumble, or lisp (шепелявить) / say “thish ish” for “this is”/, or stammer (say “a f-f-f-fine d-d-d-day”). Idiolectal variation may cause a lot of difficulties in communication. At the same time it enables people to identify the speech of certain individuals.

Diaphonic variation affects the quality and quantity of particular phonemes. E.g. the diaphonic variation of / involves significant changes in length, because in some dialects / æ / is much longer than the standard sound. Its quality ranges from a front open / æ / in the southern part of England to / a / in Northern England.

Diaphonic variants do not affect intelligibility of speech, yet they inform the listener about the speaker’s origin (i.e. the region he comes from) and his social standing. The listener easily notices both idiolectal and diaphonic variants, but it does not take him much time to “tune in” to the speakers manner of speech and understand him.

The less noticeable variation of phonemes is allophonic one, which is conditioned by phonetic position and phonetic environment.

English vowels are modified by the neighboring consonants, mainly by the following consonant, or a consonant to a vowel, is known as accommodation.

Accommodation can be progressive, regressive or mutual. If the articulation of a sound is modified under the influence of the preceding sound, i.e. its articulation is adapted to the articulation of the preceding sound the accommodation is progressive (e.g. the ~ of /i:/ in “ mẽ ”). If the articulation of a sound is adapted to the articulation of the following sound, the accommodation is regressive (e.g. the labialization of / t / in “toe”).

If the articulatory movements of both the sounds are adapted to each other, the accommodation is mutual (e.g. in / tu: / / t / is labialized under the influence of / u: / and / u: / is a little bit advanced under the influence of / t /).

Assimilation is the process of adapting the articulation of sounds that are of a similar or identical nature. Assimilation involves changes in the central phases of the adjoining sounds (as in / / or even in all their phases (as in / sj/ >/ /).

When two consonants assimilate, different phonetic phenomena may occur, such as:

1. Vocalization and devocalization, which involve the work of the vocal cords (as in / tra:nz'leit for /……/ / tra:ns'leit /).

2. Coalescent assimilation, when under the influence of mutual assimilation there appears a new phoneme (as in / sj />/ /, / zj />/ /, / />/ /, / dj />/ /.

3. Labialization under the influence of / w / (as in / tw /, / kw /, etc.


4. Dentalization, which is change in the articulation of alveolar sounds under the influence of dental sounds (as in / /, / zð/).

5. Loss of aspiration, when a fortis plosive is unaspirated under the influence of a neighboring sound (as in / spi:k /).

6. Changes in the articulation of plosives, such as:

a) Nasal plosion produced by the soft palate when a plosive is followed by a nasal consonant (as in / t n /, / d n /, / p m /);e.g. upmost=uppermost.

b) lateral plosion produced at the sides of the tongue when a plosive is followed by / 1 / (as in / t1 /, / d1 /); * turtle, curdle-свертывать; о крови

c) Restricted plosion, which is an incomplete plosion that occurs when a plosive is followed by a constrictive (as in /p1/, / gr /, / kr /).

d) Loss of plosion when a plosive is followed by a plosive (as in / d t /, / t t / / k k /, etc.).

7. Changes involving both the work of the active organs and the place of obstruction, which result in allophonic and phonemic change (e.g. / kən'qrætjuleit / or / kəŋ' / where / n />/ ŋ/ under the influence of /g/.

The mutual influence that the sounds of a similar or identical nature exert upon each other may result in either allophonic modifications or phonemic changes. Phonological analysis shows that

assimilation resulting in phonemic changes occurs mainly at the juncture between words: won’t you / />/ / would you /dj/>/d /, of course /vk/>/fk/.

It may also occur at the juncture between the parts of a compound word: gooseberry / s b />/ z b /, newspaper / z p />/ s p /, horseshoe / s />/ /.

Assimilation resulting in allophonic modifications may occur within a syllable (e.g. in “train” /r/ is voiceless, or partly devoiced), at the juncture of syllables (e.g. in “anthem” /n/ is dental under the influence of / θ /), or at the juncture of two words (e.g. “ but the ” where / t / is dental).

If the assimilated sound is partially altered and acquires only some features of the assimilating sound (as in “ try ”, where / t / is post-alveolar), the assimilation is said to be partial.

If the assimilated sound is completely altered and acquired all the main features of the assimilating sound as in “horseshoe”, “does she” / 'dΛ i/, the assimilation is said to be complete.

The influence that sounds exert upon each other may vary in direction.

If a sound is influenced by the preceding sound and acquires some of its features as in “cry”, where /r/ is partly devoiced under the influence of / k /, the assimilation is progressive.

If a sound is influenced by the following sound and acquires some of its features as in “goo s eberry”, where / s/ is voiced and replaced by /z/ under the influence of /b/, the assimilation is regressive.

If the sound influence each other equally, i.e. each sound acquires some features of the other sound as in “twenty”, where /t/ is labialized under the influence of / w/, and / w/ is partly devoiced under the influence of /t/, the assimilation is mutual.

Junctural assimilation may also vary in the extend of the modifications that take place. It may either be complete as in “Is she” / 'i i/,”has she” /’hæ i /, “good bye” / qub'bai/, or partial as in “in the”, “at the”, where /n/ and /t/ are dental.

It may vary in direction as well, and we distinguish progressive junctural assimilation as in “what’s” / w ts /, “It’s” /its/, “open the door” / 'oupmðəd:/, regressive junctural assimilation as in “of course” / əf'k:s /, “with thanks” / wiθ'θæŋks /, “in case” / iŋ'keis /, “I have to go” / ai'hæftə`gəu / and mutual junctural assimilation /as in “would you” /wud ə; 'wount ə / “won’t you”.

Junctural assimilation may be either obligatory as in “in the”, “at the”, or

non-obligatory as in “let me” / 'lemmi /, “give me” / 'gimmi /, “How do you do” / 'haud ə`du: /, “good bye” / gub'bai /.

Reduction is the modification of the quality and length of a vowel due to a weakening of its articulation and a shortening of its duration. Reduction of vowel occurs only in weakly stressed or unstressed positions.

Vowels can be partially reduced /so ‘leit /. Vowels can be reduced to / ə /. E.g. / ai bə'li:v/ for bi'li:v- where / i / is reduced to / ə/; /'intrəstiŋ/ for /'intristiŋ/.

Elision is the leaving out of sound as a means of simplifying the pronunciation of a word or a rhythmic group.

In a cluster of 3 consonants within a word, the middle one is elided. E.g., in “empty”, “tempt”, “Christmas”, “castle”, the elision of /t/ and/p/ is the norm. In “exactly”, “restless”, “handbag”, “handsome”, “friendship” elision takes place only in rapid colloquial speech, the pronunciation of the alveolar /t/, /d/ being characteristic of careful speech. Whenever the consonant is retained, it loses its plosion.

Such cases of elision occur rather in careful speech. E.g. pos(t)man, gran(d)father, nex(t)day, bread an(d) butter, up an(d) down, wasn’(t) that, Doesn’(t) she know?

The elision of one of a cluster of 2 consonants at the boundary of words is considered to be vulgar and occur in rapid careless speech only.

E.g., he went away / hi'wenə,wei /, I want to come / ai'w nə'kΛm /,

Let me see / 'lemi ֽ si: /, give me / 'gimi /.

The manner of linking neighbouring words is known as liaision (связывание конечного согласного с начальным гласным следующего слова). Liaision is a phonetic phenomenon which modifies the sound structure of an utterance.

Though liaision has not yet been fully investigated, there are 2 features which are clearly distinguished: the “linking ”/r/ and the “intrusive ”/r/.

The linking /r/ is inserted after words that in their old pronunciation (the 16th century and earlier) had a final /r/, which still remains in the spelling of those words. E.g. here /r/ and there, for /r/ a minute, later /r/ on, for /r/ instance.

The linking /r/ does not normally occur before words pronounced with emphasis. E.g., we were “absolutely” sure.


The linking /r/ is usually inserted at the juncture of 2 words belonging to one and the same Intonation group. E.g. the door opened and I peeped in. But: He locked the door and put the key into his pocket.

The intrusive /r/, which has been brought about by analogy with the linking /r/, is believed to have appeared in the 17th century. But until lately it was looked upon as a vulgarism. In the latest papers and articles on English pronunciation it is generally noted that the intrusive /r/ is being used more widely, even by RP speakers.

E.g. Asia/r/ and Africa, the idea/r/ of it, the sofa/r/ over there, the law/r/ of the sea, papa/r/ isn’t in.

Elision of vowels is closely connected with the process of reduction. Just as reduction, it is considered by the general tendency to produce the weakly stressed syllables with minimal articulatory effort.

Elision of a vowel is the leaving out of a vowel. In English there are certain phonetic positions in which the elision of a weakly stressed vowel does not affect intelligibility of speech. Moreover, instances of such elision are commonly used by RP speakers.

A.C.Gimson notes that the elision of vowels can now be observed in the following phonetic positions:

1) in post-nuclear positions in the sequence. Consonant+/ə/+/r/+weak vowel, e.g. “pre fera ble” / 'prefrəbl/, “ temp era ture” / 'temprət ə/, “cam er a” /'kæmrə/, “ter rit ory” / 'teritri/.

2) in post-nuclear positions in the sequence. Consonant+weak vowel+/1/+ weak vowel, e.g. “easily” / 'l:zli/, “ carefully” / 'kεəfli /, “novelist” / 'n vlist/, “ family / 'fæmli/.

3) in pre-nuclear positions / ə/ or / i/ of the weak syllable preceding the primary stress is apt to be elided in very rapid speech, e.g. “police” / 'pli:s/, “terrific” / 'trifik/, “correct” / 'krekt/, “believe” / 'bli:v/, “phonetics” / 'fnetiks/, “suppose” / 'spouz/, “perhaps” / 'præps/.

Elision of vowels may occur at word boundaries as well. E.g. “after a while” / 'a:ftə`wail/, “father and son” / 'fa:ðrə'sΛŋ/, “as a matter of fact” / æzə'mætrəv'fækt/.

The accentual structure of English words is generally retained in speech. But it appears that English is a language in which a relatively high percentage of words change their accentual structure in the speech continuum under the influence of rhythm.

Modifications of the accentual structure in English involve words that in isolation are double stressed. In English double-stressed words may be either simple or compound, e.g. 'dis'agree 'aftern'oon

'thir'teen 'well-'known

'six'teen 'so-'called

'inc'apable 'grey-'haired

When in the speech continuum such words are preceded or followed by a strongly stressed syllable, their accentual structure is modified e.g.


'This after`noon 'afternoon`tea

It’s 'nine ֽ thirt`een 'thirteen`pence

'Notֽfull-`grown a'full-grown`man

Thus, in a speech continuum there can be observed a variety of phonetic phenomena, which affect the sound structure, the syllabic structure and the accentual structure of words constituting the speech continuum. The neighboring sounds, the rhythmic patter, the degree of prominence, the speed of utterance and other factors affect the extent of the phonetic modifications, such as accommodation, reduction, elision, liaision and shifting of stress.

Besides, the pronunciation of a word with special prominence in the utterance (the nucleus of the utterance) is modified less than the pronunciation of the same word when weakly stressed.

Therefore, the phonetic modifications of the sound structure, the syllabic structure and the accentual structure of a word in the speech continuum depend on:

a) the phonetic environment of the word;

b) its phonetic position in the speech continuum;

c) the prosodic features of the speech continuum the word occurs in (pitch pattern, the tempo of speech, the rhythmic pattern, the degree of prominence).




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