Pronouncing Connected Speech 1: Liaison

A picture of the Band "The Monkeys" with wrong lyrics to the song "I'm a believer". It reads: "Then I saw her face / Now I'm gonna leave her."

Is that what the Monkees sang? What kinds of things cause us to misunderstand song lyrics or other spoken texts? Surprisingly, most of the time, it is not a mispronounced or misheard phoneme that causes the most trouble. It is much more likely to be a word or syllable boundary that is the issue.

Why does this happen? Well there are a few reasons. One of them has to do with the number of letters and sounds in English. As pointed out in the post on basics of English pronunciation and phonetics, there are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, and many more sounds in the language. However, you will also notice when reading and listening at the same time that native speakers rarely pronounce each letter in speech. Instead, we are prone to swallowing phonemes, so that not only the silent e, but also many other sounds, are not pronounced . This elimination of sounds is part of the rhythm of the language, and called elision. Interestingly, English also adds sounds in liaison, the topic of this post.

Liaison allows speakers to utter their sentences more quickly and ‚efficiently‘, but often makes it much harder for non-natives to understand them, especially in more informal language as viewers will find in US sitcoms or other popular culture phenomena. This causes these two sentences to sound identical in Standard American English:

They tell me that I’m easier to understand.
They tell me the dime easier to understand.

First of all, the /t/ at the end of the unstressed that is softened and gains voice in between the vowels. Secondly, it shifts in its timing to the beginning of the following word, thus that I’m comes to sound identical to the dime.

Non-native speakers — particularly German speakers — who are less familiar with American rhythm patterns, often find this difficult not only in terms of listening, but also in sounding more like native speakers, so it is important to become familiar with the phenomenon and with the sounds it produces. It contributes substantially to the ways in which English sounds very different from how it looks.

English experiences several different kinds of liaison:

In vowel-consonant-vowel liaison, the consonant between two vowels is shifted from the end of a word to the beginning of the next.

My name is Ann./maɪ neɪ mɪ zæn/
American accent/əmɛrɪkə næksənt/

In consonant cluster-vowel liaison, the final consonant of a consonant cluster is shifted to the beginning of the following word starting with a vowel, resulting in resyllabification.

Consonant cluster-vowel
left armlɛf tɑrm
wept overwɛp toʊvər
find outfaɪn daʊt

Vowel-vowel liaison is most subtle and comes from the fact that the typical sound pattern in English is an alternation between vowel and consonant phonemes. Here, a semi-vowel (a vowel-like consonant) is inserted into the gap betweeen two vowels in order to make the transition easier for speakers. This leads to a few new sound patterns seen here.

Vowel-vowel liaison
Do I have to?duwaɪ hæf tu/u/, /ʊ/, /oʊ/ -> /w/
Go on, nowgoʊwɑnaʊ
She is, indeed.ʃijɪz ɪndid/i/, /ɪ/, /eɪ/ -> /j/
They are over there.ðeɪjɑr oʊvər ðɛr
spa ownersspɑ ounərz
/ɑ/ or /ɔ/ may -> glottal stop /ʔ/ or linking /r/
I saw Ann.sɔ æn
car under itkɑrʌndərɪtin non-rhotic varieties (BrE or e.g. Northeastern AmE) /r/ is pronounced or even inserted where not otherwise
Canada and Englandkænɪdə ræn dɪnglænd

You can hear the actual American pronunciation of the words and phrases in the table by watching and listening to the video above. Check your comprehension of the content with these exercises. Watch here also for a few more examples with which you can practice listening comprehension or even your own pronunciation.