in touch with real speech
In touch with real speech

Evidence No.4: Ying’s Dilemma I – the fate of ‘where’

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The following four speech units, taken from Brazil (1994, chapter 1) illustrate Ying’s dilemma. In each of them, the word ‘where’ occurs, and it sounds different each time. Click the speaker icons on the left to hear the whole speech unit, click the speaker icons on the right to hear the word ‘where’ extracted from each speech unit. For speech units 03 and 04 there are additional icons where you can hear ‘where she’d’ and ‘where there were’. Note the different pronunciations of ‘where’

01 // but i WASn't sure WHERE //
02 // WHERE MARket street was //
03 // where she'd SAID //
04 // where there were STREET LIGHTS //

In 01 'where' sounds close to the citation form that you would find in the dictionary; in 02 it is shorter and the vowel is less of a diphthong; in 03 and 04 both 'wheres' sound like the short sharp bleat of a strangled lamb. What these four examples show, quite neatly, is that words do indeed change their shape according to their relationship to other words.

In 01, 'where' is prominent, tonic (falling tone) and it occurs before a pause: these are optimal conditions for the production of a citation form, but are relatively rare in everyday speech.

In 02, 'where' is prominent early in the speech unit, and is therefore not before a pause, it is therefore shorter than in 01.

In 03 and 04 'where' is non-prominent, early in the speech unit, therefore not before a pause, it is even shorter.

Position in the speech unit, and choice by the speaker of whether or not to make a word prominent, are therefore key determinants of the sound shapes of any word.

You might argue that this kind of thing only happens to function words. But you would be wrong. See Evidence no. 5 here, where you can hear different sound shapes for 'produced'.


Brazil, D. (1994). Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goh, C. (1997). Metacognitive awareness and second language listeners. ELT Journal 51(4), 361-369