Strong Forms and Weak Forms
This weeks blog post is about strong forms and weak forms of words and how they help to make the language we speak more intelligible. Weak forms occur on small, less important words (like prepositions and articles) that link the operative, key content words of a sentence together (things like verbs, adverbs, adjectives or nouns). These weak form words are what we call function words, and typically they are words such as:
- auxiliar verbs am, are, be, been, can, could, do, does, has, had, shall, should, was, were, would,
- prepositions at, for, from, of, to,
- pronouns he, her, him, his, me, she, them, us, we, you,
- conjunctions for, and, but, or, than, that,
- particles to,
- articles a, the, an,
It is worth noting that there are some function words that don’t have weak forms, such as a stranded preposition, as in the example where are you going TO? , where the word to cannot be in its weak form. Function words are closed class items, that is that this limited group of words is exhaustive, and that we can’t make up new ones, whereas open class words (as most content word types are) are invented all the time! See Wikipedia on this for more detail.
These function words have strong forms which are pronounced with their dictionary form—this is the pronunciation we use when we talk about the word. This involves a stressed, full form of its vowel. In their weak form, many of these vowels are reduced all the way to the center of the mouth, the schwa vowel. The indefinite article “A”, is only pronounced with its strong form [eɪ] when we are emphasizing it. Normally it’s just pronounced with a schwa, [ə] . In some cases, weak forms can be reduced by dropping certain sounds from their pronunciation, such as him, her pronounced as ‘im, ‘er. In other cases, vowels are dropped and final continuant consonants like l, n, or m, become syllabic, so words like shall become sh’ll [ʃɫ̩]. Can you work out the strong form of these words?
[ ðə, əm, bɪn, ɪm, ənd, ðəm, ɪz, ðət, ʃɫ, ðn]
So what does this have to do with intelligibility? The basic idea is that we need to find a balance between strong forms and weak forms. Stressed forms are a way of emphasizing words, particularly for function words, so if we need to stress a function word we use its strong dictionary form. But otherwise we don’t use its strong dictionary form and we need to reduce those words appropriately so they don’t stand out. Unfortunately some people are mistaken, and believe that they need to stress these weak form words in order to be clear. Adding emphasis to unimportant function words is a way of making your text less clear, and more confusing. Frequently you can hear journalists or news readers reading their way through a newscast, choosing to emphasize unimportant function words as a way to keep their reading “interesting sounding”. It’s so common that I think most of us have become immune to this strange way of reading aloud! I also tend to hear people who were taught to read aloud as children. Forensics programs teach kids to make presentations, and when they read aloud they frequently are told to elevate articles like the word “the” to their stressed form, “thee”. Unless we mean to say “that particular one”, we should always make this word by using the pronunciation with schwa. It is worth noting that when we hesitate, we do elevate indefinite and definite articles, a and the, to their strong form just before a pause. So though we might say “I bought a dog,” if we hesitated before saying dog, we would say “I bought A… dog” and use the [eɪ] pronunciation.
Casual speech brings with it further degrees of weakening, and, depending on accent of course, expressions like “I’m going to” reducing to I’m gonna or I’ng unna. Ben Trawick-Smith handles this particular weak form in great depth over on Dialect Blog. There are many similar reductions and contractions, like “gonna, wanna, gotta, shoulda, coulda, woulda, oughta” Wikipedia’s entry on this topic has plenty of examples of these so called relaxed pronunciations that you might explore. Being an aspect of the informal register, they are part of the way native English speakers converse in an informal, personal, relaxed manner. Intelligibility, in my book, means setting the right register for the context, and often that means using these forms appropriately. L2 learners of ESL or EFL would do well to study these in great depth, as this is often something that sets a native apart from a non-native speaker (NNS). On several occasions I have coached a NNS to “mumble” more, by teaching the words that could be reduced, based on the context.
More formal registers, like those that come with speaking classical text or verse, demand that we avoid these forms. However, they do not require that we avoid weak forms altogether! I recall coaching the voice work on a production of Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, and the director was insisting that the word “to” in all instances must be pronounced in its strong form, as [tu] always, never [tə] or even [tʊ]. The actors that she hired were very adept at giving her what she wanted (which was no mean feat), but their language sounded stilted, and confusing, as they continued to draw attention to words that weren’t important to their message. What had been adopted as Good Speech was merely an obstacle to the audience’s deeper involvement and engagement with the ideas of the play.
Where’s My Exercise?
OK, I get it. I’ve trained you to want an exercise you can apply this concept with! Here you go:
Start with a text you are familiar with. Let’s use the start of the most famous Shakespearean soliloquy of all time:
To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.
- Speak the text, making all the words their strong, dictionary form, even going so far as to dial “the” up to “thee”, and “a” up to “eh”.
- Explore the text being very emphatic with your point, and emphasize as many words as possible, but not the function words.
- Try to emphasize only one or two words per line, and reduce all the function words as much as you can.
- Try eliding words together, like “That’s the question.”
- Could you get away with a fully reduced weak form (à la informal register) in some of these words? “An’ by opposin’ end ’em.” How comfortable are you with that?
- Now speak the text again, but this time try to find a balance—how far feels appropriate for you in reducing these words from their strong form?
In my experience, many people report that their tolerance to reducing words to their weak form in a classical text is very limited. Part of this comes from the tradition of Classical theatre—that people expect a certain level of elocution associated with these texts, an “extra-daily” approach that goes beyond the way we speak naturally. Overdoing this will also affect the meter, and those of us who feel a responsibility to uphold the structure of the meter will chafe against this idea. But I think it’s a great way of taking note of our expectations of a certain level of diction, and pushing our buttons.