Reduced diphthongs

Now, when a diphthong is placed in an unstressed syllable, it can undergo a process of weakening too. The second vowel can be considerably debilitated, often to the point of being dropped altogether, especially in rapid, everyday speech, but not exclusively. This is particularly true of the diphthong /əʊ/, like in the following examples (in dictionaries this is sometimes signalled with the second element in italics /əʊ/):

obey /əʊˈbeɪ/ → /əˈbeɪ/

paleolithic  /ˌpæliəʊˈlɪθɪk/ → /ˌpæliəˈlɪθɪk/

Listen to these two recordings of the word obey. 

First, American actor Tom Hanks, who keeps the diphthong and pronounces /əʊˈbeɪ/.

sound_loud_speaker And that’s the responsibility of anybody who wants to obey a code of professional ethics (Tom Hanks, The Hollywood Reporter).

Next -and it seems like a joke, right now, really- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation and admonishing people about the consequences of not keeping the rules during the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson, on the other hand, clearly reduces the diphthong to a schwa /əˈbeɪ/.

sound_loud_speaker You must obey the rules on social distancing and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines to the small minority who break them (Boris Johnson, officialy addressing -and menacing- the nation).

There are also other cases of weakened diphthongs, other than /əʊ/. The contraction they’ll  is very frequently pronounced /ðel/ instead of /ðl/.

sound_loud_speaker They‘ll be here in a moment. ǀ ðel bi ˈhɪər ɪn ə ˈməʊmənt ǀ 

We’re  /wɪəis often reduced reduced to /wi/.

sound_loud_speaker We’re considering moving out.  ǀ wkənˈsɪdərɪŋ ˈmuːvɪŋ ˈaʊt ǀ

My /mis sometimes pronounced /ma/.

sound_loud_speaker My house is in a mess right now. ǀ ma ˈhaʊs ɪz ɪn ə ˈmes raɪt naʊ ǀ

I know some people might consider this careless pronunciation, but actually it’s how real English is spoken very often, even in formal contexts. Of course, the weakening of diphthongs is not obligatory and it happens only occasionaly, not all the time. In any case, to assuage your possible misgivings, listen to the voices of two well-known and very well-spoken BBC Radio 3 presenters:

sound_loud_speaker The guitar made me think of one of my favourite players rooted in world sounds, Ralph Towner (Tom McKinney, BBC3).

Can you hear any diphthong in my? I think the glide /ai/ is so faint that is barely distinguishable.

ǀ m ˈfeɪvrɪtǀ  → ǀ ma ˈfeɪvrɪtǀ 

And this one is even more clear:

sound_loud_speaker I played in a piano class and then my mum took me to watch some singing (Sarah Walker, BBC3).

ǀ m ˈmʌm ǀ  → ǀ ma ˈmʌm ǀ 

Also, as I’ve already explained in a previous article, normally the British diphthong // is only pronounced as a diphthong when it is stressed or comes before a pause, as you can see in the following example:

sound_loud_speaker We have to say something, I think, about what puritanism is briefly and why they’re there (Simon Middleton, BBC4).

In theory, the contractions they’re and the adverb there are both pronounced /ð/ (they are homophones), but in this recording you can clearly appreciate how the unstressed, non-final they’re is pronounced just /ðe/ (the reduced or weakend form) whereas there, which is the last element in the clause and it’s stressed, retains its strong form /ð/.

Let’s now read what professor Adrian Underhill has to say about the weakening of diphthongs: “Unstressed diphthongs become generally less distinct, often losing their two-vowel glide quality and merging into one composite `greyish´ monophthong”.

I think this recording by Elvis Costello is a good example of Underhill’s “greyish monophthong”. The vowel he pronounces in the unstressed syllable of myself  turns into a sort of schwa.

sound_loud_speaker I set out knowing that I was sort of making a double album, and I kept it to myself (Elvis Costello, BBC4).

myself  /mˈself/ → /məˈself/


This is the type of work I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.