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Unstressed vocalism

The English vowels occurring in unstressed syllables form a definite system that is called the system of unstressed vocalism. The vowels in unstressed syllables may be pronounced in three different ways:

1) a vowel of full formation may be used in an unstressed syllable;

2) a semi-weak vowel may be used in an unstressed syllable;

3) an unstressed vowel may undergo different types of reduction.

The English language is characterized by a specific way of uttering unstressed syllables which is not typical of Russian. Practically any vowel of full formation may be used in unstressed, as in the case of:

niece – grandniece

fit – benefit; etc.

Such vowels of full formation are used in all types of pronunciation. Their substitution by a reduced vowel is incorrect.

A semi-weak vowel may be used in an unstressed syllable as well.

I. Ward defines a semi-weak vowel as “a vowel that lies in an intermediate position between the strong vowel and the neutral /ə/”. She gives /o/ as an example for it, as in:

/ou’bei – o’bei - ə’bei/

the unstressed vowel in the first column are of full formation; in the second the vowel is semi-weak; and in the third it is reduced to the neutral vowel /ə/.

I.Ward’s definition of a semi-weak vowel seems to be incom­plete. Prof.V.A.Vassilyev’s definition of a semi-weak vowel runs as follows “... a semi-weak vowel may, therefore, be de­fined as a partially reduced vowel, which is used in a more careful style of pronunciation instead of the neutral vowel used in the rapid colloquial style and instead of the corresponding vowel of full format1on used in the full style”. G.P.Torsuyev regards semi-weak vowels as products of partial reduction.

A vowel in an unstressed syllable is most commonly reduced. Vowel reduction is a characteristic feature of English Russian and some other languages. A vowel in an unstressed syllable becomes shorter weaker and less distinct.

There are three degrees of reduction in English.

1) quantitative;

2) qualitative;

3) zero.

In quantitative reduction it is the length of a vowel which is reduced, as in:


4-кесте – Quantitative reduction

  Strong forms Quantitatively reduced forms
your jo: Jo
me mi: Mi


In qualitative reduction the quality of a sound is changed as in the following:


5-кесте – Qualitative reduction

  Strong forms Qualitatively reduced forms
were wə:
for fo:


Zero reduction consists in dropping out a vowel or a consonant, as in the case of:


6-кесте – Zero reduction

  Strong forms reduced forms with zero reduction
shall ʃæl ʃl, l
am æm M


Reduction is one of the phonetic changes taking place in the historical development of a language.

The most important role in the system of unstressed vo­calism in English is played by the neutral vowel phoneme /ə/, which has a number of allophones.

Vowels in stressed position usually alternate with vowels in unstressed position. Such alternation between stressed and un­stressed vowels is called vowel gradation (чередование гласных). There are several types of vowel gradation in English. They are:

Any English vowel of full formation in a stressed posi­tion may alternate with the neutral vowel /ə/:

/ði: - ðə/ (the)

/ ðem – ðəm/ (them)


The stressed /i:/ alternates with the unstressed /i/:

/ri’pi:t – repi’tiʃn/ (repeat – epetition)


The stressed /e/ alternates with the unstressed /i/:

/ik’sel – ‘eksələnt/ (exel – exellent)


The stressed /ei/ alternates with the unstressed /i/:

/dei – ‘fraidi/ (day – Friday).


Though the neutral vowel sound is short and indistinct it is capable of forming minimal pairs thus differentiating one word from another. The most common opposition is /ə - i/ though /ə - ou / is also possible. For instance:

/ ‘houlə - ‘houli / (holer – holey);

/ ək’sept – ik’sept / (accept – exept);

/’tempə - ‘tempou/ (temper – tempo);

/’soulə - ‘soulou/.



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