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“What have you been up to?” (BBC Radio 4)

I guess, these being very common words, the actor pronounces /ə/ for have, and /in/ for been. Is this right?

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  • In the first example, the words 'What have' have been contracted into 'what've'. Been sounding like 'bin' is usually a colloquial pronunciation, but to me it actually sounds like been in the passage.
    – mcalex
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 12:20

1 Answer 1

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I congratulate you on your ear and your analysis.

Have has always been subject to this sort of reduction in speech. OED 1 has a long note on this and records spellings without the /v/ all the way back to 1300. In some dialects ha even became the standard form.

Reduced pronunciations are standard. In rapid speech the have may disappear altogether, to the point that words on either side elide into each other:

What have you been up to? ⇨ What Ø you been up to? ⇨ Whatcha been up to?

The literature of the 16th-18th centuries frequently employs the spelling {ha'} to mark conversational use. But this practice died out toward the end of the 18th century, and for the past 200 years a reduced spelling has marked speech as dialectal or substandard:

I coulda been a contender.
I mighta known.
Who'da thunk it?

The "proper" pronunciation of been—/biːn/, /bin/, /bɪn/, /bɛn/— was very hotly debated for some thirty years either of side of 1900. Today nobody much cares. It is laid down by Dictionaries that Americans should say /bɪn/ and Brits /biːn/; but this comment to the question When is “been” pronounced /biːn/ rather than /bɪn/? bolsters my own sense (not systematically researched) that the tense British pronunciation occurs only when the word is stressed.

What is really interesting about your example is the disappearance of the /b/. I have never noticed this before, and in fact I had to listen to your clip half a dozen times to assure myself that the /b/ was in fact not there at all (which goes to show that unless we listen very closely we hear what we expect to hear, not what is actually present). I have not been able to find another example; but it is not hard to see how the /b/ gets dropped. With /b/ the voicing—the "hum" from the larynx—is extended as far as possible into the time when the airway is closed by the lips; this is what distinguishes /b/ from /p/. In your example, this voicing is continuous, and it is likely that the closure is at most partial, so any actual "stop-ness" is completely obscured by the voicing you hear.

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