Anyone who is familiar with the English language will not be surprised to hear that English words are not always pronounced exactly the way that they are spelled. There are many reasons why a spelling may differ from its pronunciation – perhaps the word was borrowed from a foreign language (e.g. “ballet” is borrowed from French, final consonants in French are generally not pronounced, thus the final “t” in “ballet” is silent), or perhaps the pronunciation changed over time in the vernacular but the spelling remained the same as always, reflecting an old pronunciation.
Often, when a word’s spelling differs from its pronunciation, it is an exception that simply must be memorized. However, there are some helpful patterns that can be found amidst all this messy confusion of irregular spelling in English.
One pattern of pronunciation is related to stressed and unstressed syllables. First, let’s answer the question: what is word stress? If a word has two or more syllables, one of those syllables will be pronounced a little bit louder and a little bit longer than the other syllables in the word: that’s the stressed syllable. The other syllable(s) in the word are unstressed syllables. For example, let’s look at the word banana – in English it is not pronounced in a flat monotone of ba-na-na. The middle syllable is stressed, so we say the middle part a bit louder and longer than the first and last syllables – so it is actually pronounced buh-NA-nuh.
Let’s take an even closer look at the word “banana”, because something really interesting is happening here. Since “banana” has the letter “a” in it 3 times, you might reasonably expect to hear the sound /æ/ (as in “hat”) 3 times within the word banana, right? But in fact, we see that the unstressed first and last syllables are pronounced “uh” (sounds like the vowel in “fun”): buh-NA-nuh. Why is this? It’s because generally unstressed syllables are not spoken slowly and clearly, and so their pronunciation ends up being the quick and easy-to-say “uh” sound. (Technically, this “uh” sound is called the “schwa” sound, but we’ll call it “uh” to keep things simple.) Any of the five written vowels (a, e, i, o or u) could potentially sound like “uh” if they are part of an unstressed syllable. As you can see, it’s super important to know which syllable is stressed in a word in order to pronounce it properly! Not to mention that stressing the wrong syllable of a word can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, as described in the previous blog post, A Stress-Free Introduction to Word Stress.
To demonstrate the phenomenon of vowels in unstressed syllables being pronounced “uh”, here are a few examples of this in common 2-syllable words:
The main point to remember regarding this stress and pronunciation pattern is to be aware of the “uh” (schwa) sound in American English, since it tends to pop up in the most unexpected places. Indeed, it’s the most common vowel sound in English! Once you start listening for the “uh” sound, you’ll start to hear it everywhere. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet for the “uh” sound is /ə/, so if you’re ever unsure if a word has that sound in it or not, you can always look it up in the dictionary and check for the symbol “ə” in the phonetic spelling.