126: Unstressed syllables, part 2

Short i as an unstressed vowel sound for English as a Second Language Learners.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 126th episode.

In episode 125 I talked about schwa as an unstressed vowel sound, and I told you that it sounds very similar to a short u. The short u sounds like (short u), and is the vowel sound in the word sun.

Short u and schwa sound so similar that a number of dictionaries show them both as an upside down letter e. Dictionaries that show them differently use an upside-down v for the short u.

The major concept of our last episode was the dramatic changes of a vowel sound when it falls on an unstressed syllable. Our examples compared the letters a and o in both a stressed and an unstressed position. For instance, if the word proposal were given a strong vowel sound on all of its syllables, it would be pronounced as *proposal. Listen again:

(using schwa) proposal, (using strong vowels) *proposal

Today I'm going to expand subject of unstressed syllables to tell about when the letter e is pronounced as a short i sound. The short i sounds like (short i), and is the vowel sound in the word sit (short i) sit.

The letter e being pronounced as a short i can be demonstrated very quickly by listening to the -ed ending. When the -ed ending follows a t sound or a d sound, the -ed is pronounced as a short i sound followed by a d sound. Not surprisingly, the -ed ending is never stressed.

Listen to the short i sound (short i) in the -ed ending of the following words:


Now let's expand to a more difficult topic: when a word begins with an unstressed syllable and the letter e.

This is most noticeable in words that non-native speakers accidentally begin with a long e sound, even though the syllable is unstressed. Here are a few examples. I'm going to pronounce them correctly right now, then compare them a bit later:


Pronouncing all those words with a beginning sound of long e will not cause miscommunication. I would be able to understand you if you did that. However, it will affect your rhythm of spoken English, and rhythm is something every non-native speaker who wants to sound highly fluent should pay attention to.

Now I'm going to say those examples again, and this time I'm going to say them both ways, first correctly, with a beginning short i sound, then less correctly by using the long e. Remember, the short i sounds like (short i) and the long e sounds like (long e):

electric, *electric
economy, *economy
effective, *effective
election, *election

Hopefully you could hear the difference between those examples. If you couldn't, you should practice some short i/long e minimal pairs to increase your ability to recognize specific sounds.

Now, let's practice some words that also begin with a reduced vowel sound, but instead of an accidental long e pronunciation, non-native speakers are more likely to have an accidental short e pronunciation. First, I'll just say them correctly.


I'm going to say them again, this time first using the correct short i pronunciation, then using the less correct short e pronunciation. These may be a bit harder for you to hear the difference between:

example, example
escape, escape
enforce, enforce
embarrass, embarrass

By the way, dictionaries will show a short i symbol (not schwa) when the letter e is reduced to a short i on an unstressed syllable.

This all means that when you're pronouncing a multi-syllable word, knowing which syllable is stressed is a very large part of understanding which vowel sounds that word includes. Pronuncian's sound lessons all include common spelling patterns for each sound . It is important to realize that those spelling patterns are true for stressed syllables (or single syllable words). Syllables adjacent to the stressed syllables are often pronounced with a reduced vowel sound. So far, we've talked about schwa and short i. The spellings a, o and u are often reduced to schwa, and the spellings e and i are often reduced to a quick short i sound. Of course, there are exceptions, but I'm not going to get into those now. For now, I want you to remember the pattern that a syllable next to a stressed syllable is usually given a reduced vowel sound.

I'm going to say all eight words I used as examples again. Listen for the beginning short i sound. I'll say them correctly, and I'll leave time for you to repeat after me.



A great way to practice hearing the rhythm of English and to practice unstressed vowel sounds is to listen to and repeat a native speaker. An entertaining way of doing that is to listen to and repeat an audiobook. You can get a free audiobook by signing up for a free 14-day trial of Audible.com through Pronuncian.com. Just go to www.pronuncian.com/audible for more details. Don't worry, even if you cancel your subscription before the 14 days is up, the free audiobook you chose is yours to keep forever!

As always, transcripts for this show are available on our website. Just go to www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.