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I'm a Polish learner of English (especially British English). Some time ago, I started to regularly practice my pronunciation, and while most of the vowels aren't an issue to me already, there's still the /ə/ phoneme. 

The problem is, the main book I learn from says that there are two kinds of /ə/.

The first one is slightly similar to a Polish [ɛ] (or [e]), and the second one is slightly similar to a Polish [a], or to an [ʌ] sound.

Up to this moment, everything looks pretty good.

[ə1] is used at the initial position, and in the middle of a word, but [ə2] is used at the end if, after the sound, a pause occurs.

If there's no pause after a word with [ə] at the end, the vowel should be in the first, NOT lowered form (that is, [ə1]). Considering omitting the pronunciation of /r/ before consonants.

Thus... I've got a few questions.

  • I) If I pronounce a sentence: "I've sent a letter to my father."

Is there a pause between /letə/ and /tə/? Thus, which /ə/ form should I use at the end of /letə/? I suppose that after /fɑ:ðə/ in this sentence there's a pause, because the sentence ends here.

So, /aɪv sent ə letə tə maɪ fɑ:ðʌ/ or /aɪv sent ə letʌ tə maɪ fɑ:ðʌ/?

(I use the ʌ symbol in order to represent a lowered shwa rather than an actual ʌ sound.)

  • II) Let's have a look at this sentence: "We bought a sofa, a bronze figure, and a chocolate comma."

Are there pauses before each comma in that sentence? Again, I suppose that the last word should be pronounced /kɒmʌ/, but what with /səʊfə/, and /fɪgə/? Should they end with more [ə] or [ʌ]?

Therefore, I'd like to know if native speakers (especially British), actually use different variations of /ə/ depending on the pause, as I described earlier. If they do, how to find pauses?

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  • I don't consciously pronounce them differently, and have difficulty in recognising what a 'lowered shwa' is. (English Midlands). Apr 15 at 14:58
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    Googling 'lowered schwa' finds several articles about it, so it obviously is a recognised phenomenon - I was just giving my personal view. Apr 15 at 15:20
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    RP does make a distinction, and I don't know how widespread it is in modern natural speech. But certainly enough British speakers (and most if not all Americans) lack a distinction that you won't sound weird if you treat them as one sound, as long as you also pay attention to stress and length. Apr 15 at 15:23
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    I'm sure no native speakers make a conscious effort to articulate schwas differently in different contexts, and I can't see why non-Anglophones should want to notice and copy such behaviour, if in fact it really happens. Realistically, I expect many if not most native speakers would slur the two consecutive schwas in sofa, a... into one "extended" schwa. But they wouldn't normally be aware of this, or be doing it deliberately. It's just relaxed speech. Apr 15 at 16:14
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    @Jay - In a non-rhotic dialect, such as you find in many parts of Britain, 'letter' ends with a shwa. I would say that 'too' ends with a long 'u', 'to' with a short one (and sometimes a shwa in very casual speech). Apr 15 at 18:45

1 Answer 1

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Is there a pause between /letə/ and /tə/?

There isn't a required pause. But nor is it required that the sounds be connected.

which /ə/ form should I use at the end of /letə/?

It depends on whether you pause or not.... But if you are making a conscious decision about this you would not be speaking naturally. It would be better to consciously not worry about this! Trying to choose which schwa to use will only result in an unnatural accent.

There is always a variation in how a particular vowel is produced. The vowel in "letter" could be [ɛ] or [ə] or probably several other sounds

"We bought a sofa, a bronze..." Are there pauses

Again there are many correct productions of this, and some would have the vowels separate, others would have the vowels run together. Much would depend on whether the speaker was able to think of the things quickly enough, or whether a hesitation to access one's memory occurred. There would likely be other hesitations with "ums" and "errs". So it simply isn't possible to say, "The native speaker does (or does not) pause."

Yes there is variation in vowel quality, and these variations would correlate with the sound environment that the vowel is produced in, including pauses before or after the vowel. These variations are explained as being a natural element of relaxed speech and not a learnt quality.

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