Today is the first day of UCL’s annual Summer Course in English Phonetics (SCEP), of which I’m Director. A warm welcome to this year’s pronunciation enthusiasts, who’ve come from sixteen different countries. This SCEP-season, my weekly posts are looking at small, frequent English words which are tricky for non-natives because some are generally strong and some are generally weak.
Last week I discussed the word one. Like the other numerals, one is strong, and often accented so that it stands out in pitch. This week let’s look at the next numeral, two, and the preposition to. Many non-natives give identical or very similar pronunciations to two and to. Natives, on the other hand, generally make a phonetic distinction between them, so that I want to fish sounds different from I want two fish.
Like one, the numeral two is strong and has a full, clear vowel: in conventional transcription, /tuː/. To, on the other hand, is usually very weak: when followed by a consonant, it’s typically weakened to /tə/ or just /t/. This applies both within a single word, eg today, together, and in consecutive words, eg to come, to London. It’s important to understand that this happens even in relatively careful speaking styles, such as teaching or newsreading. If you never weaken the word to, you’re not speaking more clearly – you’re failing to observe a distinction!
A good way to illustrate this is with real utterances in which native speakers say the words to two consecutively: /tə tuː/ or /t tuː/. Notice the weakness of to and the prominence of two:
The word to may be pronounced strongly if it isn’t connected to an immediately following word. This can occur when the speaker hesitates: