Triphthongs and smoothing

We now turn to a very interesting phenomenon which is somewhat disconcerting for Spanish speakers: the pronunciation of English triphthongs. Being aware of it will help you not only to sound more natural and fluent but also to understand what native speakers say better.

English has five triphthongs, which are formed by the diphtongs ending in /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ + the sound /ə/. Let’s see some examples:

// + /ə/ =  [aʊə]                       sound_loud_speaker hour 

// + /ə/ =  [aɪə]                         sound_loud_speaker fire 

// + /ə/ =  [eɪə]                         sound_loud_speaker player 

/əʊ/ + /ə/ =  [əʊə]                      sound_loud_speaker mower

/ɔɪ/ + /ə/ =  [ɔɪə]                         sound_loud_speaker employer  

 

As you can see, triphthongs have three vowel sounds in a row. However, they are not always fully pronounced since very often the second element (that is, the [ɪ] or [ʊ] in the middle) is  considerably weakened or left out altogether. This process is called smoothing and it is very typical of British RP (it occurs less frequently in General American).

The smoothing  phenomenon particularly affects the diphthongs //, // and //, which become [], [] and []. So, the result is as follows:

 

Full version                                                             Smoothed version

sound_loud_speaker hour  /aʊə/                                                         sound_loud_speaker hour /aə/

sound_loud_speaker fire   /faɪə/                                                          sound_loud_speaker fire   /faə/

sound_loud_speaker player  /pleɪə/                                                   sound_loud_speaker player  /pleə/

 

The triphthong [aʊə] is often pronounced just as /ɑː/, especially in some words like the possessive our. Notice how clearly this happens in the following examples:

sound_loud_speaker A seal’s flippers resemble our hands (A.S. Byatt, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Somewhere where our lives matter (Malorie Blackman, on BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Thank you for downloading this episode of In Our Time. For more details about In Our Time and for our terms of use… (Melvyn Bragg, BBC4).

Actually, this is the way our  is currently said in British English (and very often in American English too, although in AE the final r is pronounced). Producing the full triphthong [aʊə] in the word our sounds a bit unnatural in different varieties of English.

It is also interesting to note that the smoothing of triphtongs bring about some new homophones. Both [aʊə] and [aɪə] might be produced as [], so the words tower and tyre are pronounced [t], which can be confusing if you’re not aware of this process.

Another good example of smoothing is the word mayor, which is always pronounced /m/ in British English ([meɪər] in American English). Admittedly, in this case the British version is much more difficult to understand than the American for non native speakers.

Here are some sentences which include the three cases studied above:

sound_loud_speaker It takes almost an hour to get there.

sound_loud_speaker There was a great fire that burned down the building.

sound_loud_speaker She’s the best player in the team.

 

Two special cases. The triphthongs [əʊə] and [ɔɪə] need some further explanation, so I’ll treat them separately.

1. The distinguishing fact about the smoothed version of [əʊə] is that it is realized as a monophthong, the sound /ɜː/. This is only natural if you think that, by taking out the [ʊ] in the middle, you get two schwas together [əə], which is the same as /ɜː/ (for the relation between /ə/ and /ɜː/, see here).

Let’s listen to the difference:

sound_loud_speaker mower  /məʊə/                                                sound_loud_speaker  mower  /mɜː/

And here you have it in context:

sound_loud_speaker “What’s that awful racket?””It’s my new lawn mower”.

2. The smoothing of the triphthong [ɔɪə] is more controversial, and some authors don’t include it in the catalogue of triphthongs subject to this process. So, we can safely assume that it happens less often. Nevertheless, it does happen sometimes (and we have a good example by none other than Ben Kingsley below), so we’ll treat it here as well.

This is how it sounds:

sound_loud_speaker employer  /emˈplɔɪə/                                    sound_loud_speaker employer  /emˈplɔə/

And this is a contextualized example:

sound_loud_speaker I need to talk to my employer today.

And here is sir Ben Kingsley:

sound_loud_speaker Because I had at least ten years, thank goodness, with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Ben Kingsley, BBC4).

 

A useful thing to remember is that smoothing  doesn’t necessarily erase the [ɪ] or [ʊ] in the middle of the triphthong completely. In some cases, those vowels are heard in a very faint, debilitated form, to the extent that it might be difficult to say if they are pronounced at all or not.

 

Now, let’s listen to a few more examples taken from real life:

 

sound_loud_speaker The Fire enters the city’s kind of, if you like, mythos about itself (Jonathan Sawday, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker The kingdom of Macedon became a great player in Greek politics (Paul Cartlidge, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker We talked in bed for a quarter of an hour (Julian Barnes, reading from a story by Frank O’Connor, The New Yorker).

sound_loud_speaker And the view he has from Firefly is one of the most extraordinary views (Rupert Everett, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker It’s associated with the tower of Babel (Melvyn Bragg, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker But also the cultural and economic powerhouses of the first cities as well (Eleanor Robson, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Our warning is what could. And this is what could happen (Michael Caine, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker The new powers to be given to the authorities to crack down on extremist islamists. It is, he will say, a struggle or our generation (John Humphrys, BBC4).