long u stressed and reduced
The long u can be difficult to recognize in multi-syllable words, especially when it's reduced
Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 106th episode.
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For today's show, I'm going to talk about a sound that really gets overlooked, the long u. The long u sounds like (long u), as in the word cute. Today, I'm going to talk about long u in multi-syllable words, and how to reduce the long u sound. When I say reduced long u sound, I'm talking about the long u when it occurs on an unstressed syllable of a multi-syllable word.
A common long u substitution is the oo sound. This is because the sounds are so similar; the long u sound is just an oo sound with a y sound before it. The oo sound is pronounced as (oo sound), and the long u sounds like (long u). Can you hear the difference: oo sound (oo sound), long u (long u)?
I often hear words like accumulate pronounced as *accoomoolate, or document pronounced *docooment. Don't get me wrong, these accidental substitutions will probably not cause miscommunication, they just enhance your accent, and you may want to be aware of them.
The spellings for the long u sound in multi-syllable words can be difficult sound to grasp because, as words gain syllables, their phonetics often become considerably harder to see. In big, long words, the long u sound is often spelled with just the letter u somewhere in the middle of a word, and often the word has a suffix.
Before we look at longer words, let's find the patterns of short, single syllable words. The general pattern for the long u sound is that it can be spelled:
u-consonant-e, as in the word cute
u-e, as in the word fuel
e-w, as in the word few
The confusing part is that those spellings can all also be pronounced as the oo sound. There is a way to know if the pronunciation will be long u or oo sound, however. The long u sound is more likely when the consonant sound before the spelling is any of the following six consonant sounds:
m sound, as in the word amuse
k sound, as in the word cute
n sound, as in the word continue
f sound, as in the word few
b sound, as in the word distribute
v sound, as in the word view
As I already mentioned, spelling patterns become less important in multi-syllable words because suffixes and other circumstances can affect and change spellings.
Here are some examples of words that have the long u sound spelled with just the letter u. In single-syllable words, the long u pronunciation is unlikely with just a single letter u; in multi-syllable words, however, it comes up more frequently.
I want to focus on the word accumulate for a bit because it gives us an interesting comparison of a stressed long u sound and an unstressed long u sound in a single word. Because the word accumulate ends in the -ate suffix, we know that the word is stressed on the third from the last syllable. In the word accumulate, the stressed syllable falls on the c-u syllable, acCUmulate. The c-u syllable of the word accumulate sounds like (k sound+long u), accumulate.
Immediately after the c-u syllable in the word accumulate is the m-u syllable, which also has a long u sound. However, since the m-u syllable is next to a stressed syllable, the m-u syllable gets reduced. This is a common function of schwa, or reduced vowel sounds. Your dictionary shows schwa as an unside-down letter e. The m-u syllable of the word accumulate sounds like (m sound+y sound+schwa), accumulate.
The important thing here is that the long u sound, which is pronounced as (long u) when it is stressed, is pronounced as (y+schwa) when it is unstressed. So, if I break the word accumulate into its individual syllables, it is pronounced a(c)-cu-mu-late.
Your American English dictionaries will probably show the c-u syllable in the word accumulate transcribed as a k sound, then a y sound, then an oo sound. That gives you (k sound, y sound, oo sound) It will then show the m-u syllable as an m sound, a y sound, and then a schwa, which gives you (m sound, y sound, schwa), a(c)-cu-mu-late.
Let's compare some stressed long u sounds to some unstressed long u sounds. In the following words, the long u is stressed:
And in the following words, the long u is reduced:
I'm going to say all eight of those words again for you to repeat after me. Here is the stressed long u:
And here is the reduced long u:
That's all for today, everyone. If you have a pronunciation topic you'd like me to discuss in a podcast, let me know in our forums. I get a lot of ideas from the forums, and I like the opportunity to interact with all of you! So go check them out at www.pronuncian.com/forums. Forum accounts are always free.
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About the ESL/ELL Teacher
Mandy has been teaching ESL, pronunciation and accent reduction since 2005 at Seattle Learning Academy, an English language school in Seattle, Washington, USA. She uses her experience with intermediate to advanced students to create the topics that most affect students living and working in the United States and can help them communicate better and more clearly.