In English, the vowel sound in a syllable often changes depending on if the syllable is stressed or unstressed. A useful starting point to learn about this is with a sound that sounds like ‘uh’ and is represented by two symbols in the IPA. It is the most common sound in English. It is ubiquitous because in most cases the vowel that is the syllable core changes to this sound when the syllable is unstressed. In unstressed syllables, the sound is called a schwa and is represented by an upside-down ‘e’ [ə].
One place this happens frequently is the “-ed” suffix following a consonant such as ‘t,’ ‘d,’ or ‘g.’ So we pronounce “waited” [weɪtəd] (WAY-tuhd), the short “uh” separates the ‘t’ sound from the ‘d’ sound. The stress is in the ; [eɪ] (ay) so the ‘e’ is unstressed and pronounced [ə] (uh).
The word “the” [ðə] (thuh) is not stressed, because it is a function word (next section).
The ‘uh’ sound can be a vowel in stressed syllables too. In that case, it is represented by the symbol[ʌ] which is called, “tuned v,” “caret,” “circumflex” and “wedge.” I am calling it ‘wedge” here. Wedge [ʌ] is the symbol for the ‘uh’ sound in words like “but,” “cut,” “shut” which are almost always stressed
This applies in sentences too. If a syllable is unstressed in a sentence, the vowel is usually reduced to a schwa. Function words are not stressed, so the vowels in function words are usually reduced to schwa, as in “I’m going to the store” [aɪm ˈɡoʊɪŋ tə ðə ˈstɔr] (IEm gOH-ing tuh thuh stOR). This is discussed in the next section.
Any English letter that represents a vowel, ‘a,’ ‘e,’ ‘i,’ ‘o,’ or ‘u’ can be reduced to schwa [ə] (or another more central vowel) in an unstressed syllable. Occasionally (more often in some dialects than others) [i] is reduced to [ɪ]. These reductions make English spelling difficult because you can’t sound out the spelling of the word.
What follows are lists of words of one, two, three, and four syllables in four formats. First is the word itself (a “gloss”), next is the word with the stressed syllable in capital letters, then the word in using phonetic spelling with the stressed vowel in capital letters, and final the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) spelling. In the IPA spelling, the stressed syllable is proceeded by a stress marker (ˈ).
The lists have phonetic spelling and the IPA spelling of the way that the word is said. In most cases, one of the vowels changes. There are some syllables that are never stressed and even when the word is pronounced slowly you do not make the full vowel sounds. For instance, the ending ‘-ed’ [əd] for the past tense is never stressed, but it can be stressed in “bed” [bɛd]
Be sure and notice that not every unstressed vowel is reduced to schwa (ə), in some cases, [i] is reduced to [ɪ] which lowers the [i] and makes it more central (see the vowel chart).
Vowel Change in Two-Syllable Words
Vowel Changes in Three-Syllable Words
Vowel Changes in Four-Syllable Words
Words Where Stress Changes the Meaning
A symbolic representation of a location.
Write directions for delivery; direct your focus to.
a person who has been persuaded to change their religious faith or other beliefs.
Cause to change in form, character, or function.
Something that has been reduced.
Cause the reduction of something.
A person made weak or disabled by illness or injury.
The action of object is not valid.
An act or instance of officially recalling someone or something
To remember something.
Waste or garbage left over from an event.
To express oneself as unwilling to accept
A person or thing that is being discussed, described, or dealt with.
Cause or force to undergo (a particular experience of form of treatment).
Besides weakening a vowel by making it more central, English frequently leaves out vowels or syllables altogether. This only happens to unstressed vowels and syllables. In the next section, Function Word Reductions, you start to learn how sentence stress leads to reductions and deletions, so this is not just at a word level.
Let’s look at a common word, “family.” If you put equal stress on every syllable and say it carefully, it will sound like:
fam ih lee [fæm ɪ li]
but that is not normal stress. The word has its stress on the first syllable, so it would normally be [ə].
FAM uh lee [fæm ə li]
Even if you put the stress equally on each syllable, it is unusual to use the [ɪ] sound and it is more usual to reduce it to [ə].
However, when being used in normal speech, the [ɪ] is usually left out entirely and people say:
FAM lee [fæm li]
That can make it confusing to know what word you are hearing. There are many English words that follow this pattern. Not all of them have an intermediate form because the reduced vowel is deleted. The progression is (usually):
V -> ə -> ∅
The vowel is reduced to schwa and then deleted. Here is a list of words where that happens.
Function words are words that support the grammatical structure of English. There are words like prepositions (“of,” “by,” “from” …), determiners (“a,” “the,” some” …), pronouns (“I,” “you,” “they” …), helping verbs (“have,” “will,” “kept” …), and conjunctions (“and,” “because,” “if” …). They contrast with function words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and negation. The rhythm of English puts content words on the beat with function words stretched or squeezed into the space between them (Rhythm of English).
As was mentioned in the last section, the onset and coda of syllables can be single consonants or consonant clusters. Consonant clusters can be challenging for English language learners. In many cases, they blend together sounds that are already difficult.
There is no universal agreement about the number of consonant clusters that can begin a cluster in English. The reasons include English words that are borrowed and have consonant clusters that only occur in a few words like /sf/ as in “sphere” /sfɛr/ or the status of semivowels in consonant clusters. I am going to reduce it to the set of clusters
Considering consonant clusters at the syllable level only tells part of the story. We speak in continuous streams of sounds, so the consonants at the end of one syllable or word affect the consonants can affect the next syllable or word. For instance, “my friend Don” would leave out one of the ‘d’s, and become “my fren’ Don.” In the movie Up In The Air, a flight attendant asks the male lead, “would you like a cancer?” He looks shocked, and she says it again Seeing the baffled expression on his she says it a third time slowly, “Would you like a can sir?”
I am going to discuss clusters starting with 2-consonant syllable onset, 3-syllable onset, and then the more comples issue of syllable coda clusters. Then we will look at how words with multiple syllables can affect each other. This leads to cluster reduction, where some of the consonants are left out in continuous speech. For example, we say “text” /tɛkst/, but “teks book” /tɛks bʊk/, dropping the final ‘t’ sound when it is followed by another consonant.
Syllables with 2-Consonant Cluster Onsets
Remember, this at the syllable level so within words there can be many more. For instance, adding “un-‘ to “free” will create “unfree,” and though there are two syllables you still need to pronounce the “nfr” in the word. We will look as many similar examples. First, we will look at Syllables with 2-Consonant Onsets.
Example Words with Syllables with 2-Consonant Onsets
As I mentioned, there is some disagreement about consonant clusters in English, but there are 25 syllable coda clusters on which researchers generally agree. To these, we can add morphemes like /z/ or /ed/.