It’s already the ninth and penultimate day of the UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics, and some of our participants are thinking about continuing their study of speech and language at UCL. Today we have a presentation on this by SCEP lecturer Prof John Harris and SCEP tutor Nick Neasom, who is a third year PhD student here.
Nick’s names conveniently contain what have been estimated to be the three most common vowels of English: schwa /ə/, KIT /ɪ/ and FLEECE /iː/:
(The commonness of FLEECE is boosted if it’s taken to include the so-called happY vowel /i/ as a variant.)
Certainly it’s a high priority to master these vowels if you want to get closer to native-type pronunciation, though they present definite challenges.
The most common vowel of all, schwa, is a mid central vowel, located right in the centre of the vowel space and rather ‘colourless’ in quality. There’s no letter for it in the normal English alphabet, and it can correspond to various different spellings, eg astronomer /əˈstrɒnəmə/. Many very frequent ‘function words’ are usually pronounced with it, even in careful speech. Listen to this clip of European Commissioner Jonathan Hill saying ‘It’s a great pleasure for me to be here right at the start of my term’:
(© European Union 2015)
In the space of less than five seconds, he pronounces a, for, to, at, the, of as /ə fə tə ət ðə əv/.
The KIT and FLEECE vowels are difficult for many speakers of English as L2, but it’s important to work on these vowels because they differentiate many words such as ship and sheep, as well as notorious ruder examples. KIT is shorter, more lax, and has a quality roughly between the cardinal vowels [i] and [e]. FLEECE is longer, more tense, and can have a slightly diphthongal (changing) quality rather like [ɪi] or [ɪj].
It’s useful to hear pairs of words differing in these vowels, so I thought I’d let you compare Nick Neasom /nɪk ˈniːsəm/
with the imaginary name Neak Nissom /niːk ˈnɪsəm/:
(If that isn’t amusing enough for you, and it probably isn’t, you could try the versatile Nick’s standup comedy act.)