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I'm learning American English with some online classes, and the instructor says that the 2nd vowel 'o' of "second" sounds like "/e/" in everyday conversation (e.g. "Can I talk to you for a second?"). I'm not sure if the symbol "/e/" is right, but I put it just like I heard.

I checked it using some dictionaries, and they say it sounds /ə/, which is familiar to me, without other clear explanations that I want.

Could you please explain to me about it?


+ Let me try to elaborate. What the instructor said is that we commonly know that the 2nd vowel 'o' sounds like a weak 'u' sound(/ə/) as @Michael said. However, He pronounced the word "second" differently, and tell this pronunciation is used in everyday conversation.

He pronounced the 2nd vowel of the word "second" like a weak version of /e/, for example, like from egg, error, etc. If I re-spell this word according to what I heard, I would do "se-kkend".

I'm not sure if this is related, but he said he spent his childhood in California.

I guess these added remarks also might be vague, but I'd appreciate any example to support or disprove this statement.

  • 2
    It is indeed /ə/, which is known as a schwa. Try looking up "schwa" and then perhaps edit your question if you have any specific questions about this sound. – Juhasz Apr 22 at 17:17
  • Some Americans say 'second' in a way that sounds like 'secont' to an English ear. – Michael Harvey Apr 22 at 18:25
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In careful speech by a native US-English speaker, the second vowel of "second" is often pronounced like the O in "pond". When speaking rapidly or casually, the vowel is often slurred (or "reduced") and sound more like the "u" in "fund", but less distinct. Sometimes the vowel sound is made so brief and vague it almost seems to be omitted totally, leaving something that might be spelled "secndt". This is normal.

  • Now I think that the "secndt" sound is closer to the pronunciation of him than usual pronunciation with /ə/ sound, though I'm not sure 100%. He might have explained that the 2nd vowel sound could disappear. – Patche Apr 22 at 21:41
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This is an example of vowel reduction. It sounds like a short "u" sound as in "but".

In unstressed syllables during casual speech, vowels are usually reduced (moved towards a central place of articulation) because these sounds are easier to produce.

In the case of "second" the reduced sound will sound like:

/'sek-kənd/

/'sek-kənt/

Or

/'sek-kən/

Websters dictionary even has an audio pronunciation that uses the reduced vowel as used in standard AmE.

  • Thank you for reply. I elaborated my question, and it is related to how the word "second" sounds when it experiences vowel reduction then. – Patche Apr 22 at 21:32
  • I've updated my answer with further info on that specifically. – Michael Apr 23 at 6:53
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The word 'second' has several meanings and the pronunciation can vary depending on the meanings. In BrE at least the verb to second, meaning to lend an employer temporarily to another employer, is pronounced with stress on the second (!) syllable.

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Different accents use different sounds (or hear different sounds) for the "schwa". I have posted a separate answer discussing this on this Linguistics SE post (When should I use /ə/ or /ɪ/ and why does it seem like they're not used correctly?).

You don't need to use /e/ (or [ɛ]) specifically in the second syllable of the word second. Some accents might use a vowel that sounds like that, but other accents might use a sound like "weak u" (which is often identified with schwa [ə], although technically stressed u as in fund is often transcribed otherwise, with /ʌ/), and other accents might even use a syllabic nasal [n̩]. As long as you make sure that the second syllable doesn't sound stressed, using a pronunciation that is not usual in the accent of the person who is listening to you might cause them to take note of your pronunciation, but it shouldn't cause them to have too much difficulty understanding you.

  • I see. I guess I cared too much on relatively tiny thing. – Patche Apr 23 at 20:29
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In unstressed syllables, all the lax vowels /ɛ/, /ɪ/, /ʊ/, /ʌ/ are collapsed to /ə/. This means that native speakers don't notice the difference between these vowels in the (unstressed) second syllable of "second". As a non-native speaker, you may hear differences between how different native speakers pronounce it, [ˈsɛk ən(d)], [ˈsɛk ʌn(d)], [ˈsɛk ɛn(d)], etc., but these differences are relatively unimportant as they are not generally noticed by native speakers.

Disclaimer: Most native speakers aren't aware of this subconscious phonological rule. Moreover, if they pronounce a word carefully as an example, they may put at least some stress on every syllable, in which case this rule may not apply.

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