Friday, December 30, 2011

Unstressed full vowels in English

1. Stressed vowels are not reduced
2. Not all unstressed vowels are reduced
3. Not all stressed vowels are accented

The following two claims are pervasive in L2 teaching circles.

4. Unstressed vowels are reduced to a schwa/schwi/schwu
5. All stressed vowels are accented 

In this post, I will address myself to (4).

Stress dictates the syllabification of English words. There are two kinds of syllables when stressed: open and closed.

Open stressed syllables occur before a CVV (cf. curious) and a CVVV (cf. courageous, erroneous). In this case, the stressed vowel tends to be tense (like in may, gee, oh, you/noon). However, if the stressed grapheme is i, the stressed vowel is a lax i (cf. bit, kin). You know why? The grapheme 'e' produces a tense -ee- (as in beat). The options left for the grapheme i: either a lax i (cf. kin) or a diphthong like kite. We can pursue this matter elsewhere.

How about VCCVV, VCCVVV cases? Closed syllables; therefore, stressed lax vowels. cf. compare obnoxious with erroneous: in both cases, we see CVVV. However, x is a consonant cluster -ks; /k/ joins the   previous unstressed syllable, changing the vowel from OH to COT vowel.

There is a special case of open stressed vowels; cf below. This,due to the lack of a coda consonant in the stressed syllable.

a: algebraic, mosaic, Passaic river, archaic, mosaic
e: allogeneic
o: benzoic
u: Toluic acid

Closed stressed syllables are seen elsewhere; cf. dy-nam-ic, a-mer-i-ca/a-mer-ic-a.

What happens to the adjacent unstressed syllables/vowels?

If the adjacent unstressed vowel is closed, then the underlying vowel is NOT reduced. However, if it is open, the the underlying vowel gets reduced.  That's why you see full vowels in many unstressed vowels. 

pos-TER-i-ty > po-STER-i-ty
COM-pen-SA-tion (this version is heard along with the second being a schwa variety)
re-lak-SA-tion (AmE) vs rel-ak-SA-tion (the secnd being a schwa)

Merriam-Webster is good at listing these.

Unless you know abt theories of syllabification, this phenomenon of unstressed full vowels appear arbitrary. So, you need these lens to see the phenomenon in a new light!

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