Strong vowels in unstressed syllables

Strong vowels are all the monophthongs, except the /ə/ (schwa) and  the short /i/ and /u/. So, here is the list of strong English monophthongs: / iː ɪ ʊ uː e ɜː ɔː ɒ æ ʌ ɑː /

To this we have to add all the diphthongs and all the triphthongs, which are strong vowels as well.

We already know that strong vowels tend to appear in stressed syllables most of the time, but it’s also important to remember that they can be found in unstressed syllables too. There are plenty of examples: massage /ˈmæsɑːʒ/, ambassador /æmˈbæsədə/, colleague /ˈkɒlɡ/,  torment /ˈtɔːment/, alternative /ɔːlˈtɜːnətɪv/. All the phonemes in red are strong vowels in unstressed syllables.

Listen to the word ambassadors in this recording and notice how the first a (unstressed) has the same strong vowel quality as the second a (stressed): /æmˈbæsədəz/:

sound_loud_speaker The aniversary of the birth of one of France’s great musical ambassadors to the United States, Paul Paray (Petroc Trelawny, BBC3).

This actually seems to contradict a conclusion we reached in a previous article, that whenever you have an unstressed syllable it’s likely to contain a weak vowel. But remember that we are just talking about tendencies. So, that conclusion is still valid: in un unstressed syllable you’ll normally have a weak vowel, but in a few cases you can find a strong one as well.

This doesn’t only affect monophthongs, but also diphthongs: ideal /ˈdiːəl/, regulate /ˈreɡjult/, blackout /ˈblækt/ obese /əʊˈbiːs/

And, within a clause, we have many examples of diphthongs occupying unstressed positions.

sound_loud_speaker We’re very proud of our daughter. ǀ wɪə ˈveri ˈpraʊd əv ɑː ˈdɔːtə ǀ (as you will probably have noticed, in this last example my pronunciation of the possessive our is not /aʊə/ but /ɑː/ because of smoothing).

sound_loud_speaker My mother was nice. ǀ m ˈmʌðə wəz ˈnaɪs ǀ


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.