Levchenko N.V. Assimilation as a process of modification of speech sounds in English

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Левченко Наталія Віталіївна – студентка Педагогічного інституту Київського університету імені Бориса Грінченка, напрям підготовки «Початкова освіта», кафедра іноземних мов і методик їх навчання Київського університету імені Бориса Грінченка

У статті розглянено проблему розпізнавання і розуміння асиміляції як процесу модифікації звуків мовлення в англійській мові. Автор визначає поняття щодо асиміляції, пояснює випадки, коли вона трапляється у швидкому мовленні носія мови і коментує її типи її згідно критеріїв.

Ключові слова: модифікація, перешкода, повна, неповна, проміжна, історична, обов’язкова, зворотна, поступальна, взаємна.

В статье рассмотрена проблема распознавания и понимания ассимиляции как процесса модификации звуков речи в английском языке. Автор определяет значение ассимиляции, объясняет случаи, когда она случается в быстрой речи носителя языка и комментирует её типии согласно критериев.

Ключевые слова: модификация, преграда, полная, неполная, промежуточная, историческая, обязательная, обратная, поступательная, взаимная.

The article dwells upon the problem of recognition and understanding assimilation as a process of modification of speech sounds in English. The author defines the notion of assimilation, explains its occurrence in the rapid native speaker’s speech and comments on types of it according to different criteria.

Key words: modification, obstruction, complete, incomplete, intermediate, historical, obligatory, regressive, progressive, reciprocal.


Problem setting

Nowadays English language teachers are expected to know oral speech is produced for successful verbal communication. Typically in verbal communication as the process of transmitting a verbal message from a speaker to a listener the communicators use a vernal code – language (a lexicon, a grammar and a phonology) and a system of non-verbal codes (body language, touch, special behaviour, etc). The lack of awareness of any of the constituents mentioned above leads to misunderstanding of an utterance. And assimilation as phonetic phenomenon is of great concern and interest among English language teachers for sometimes communicating with native speakers it is difficult for them to understand their rapid speech. Taking aware of assimilation may help them to overcome the difficulty.

Last scientific researches and publications analysis

The phenomenon of assimilation is of a considerable interest of a number of home and foreign scientists L. Borysova, M. Sokolova, O. Metlyuk, M. Dvorzhetska, S. Leontyeva, I. Tykhonova, S. Pavlova, V. Parashchuk, D. Chrystal, M. Pennington, A. Gimson, H. Giegerich, Tom MacArthur, J. Pride, Celce-Mercia, and others.

Formulation of the article’s purpose

Nowadays lots of textbooks and manuals for training English are lack of the analysis of different types of assimilation that are helpful in the formation of appropriate communicative competence of the English language teachers and learners as well. Thus much more attention should be paid to the English textbooks and manuals compiling the content of the material of which must be appropriate to solve the above mentioned problem.

On the basis of the things mentioned above it is worth pointing out the purpose of our investigation is to help English language teachers to be aware of the basis of such phonetic phenomenon as assimilation for better understanding of the role of assimilation in the oral verbal communication and to help them become high skilled professionals. Thus the tasks of our investigation are: to make students aware of modern tendencies in the field of assimilation; to deepen students’ knowledge of different types of assimilation and help them become able to use in their practical work; to make them able to understand rapid native speaker’s speech.

The statement of basic material of investigation

Assimilation is a process of modification of speech sounds as a result of which one of the sounds becomes fully or partially similar to the adjoining sound, and it is connected with the development of the phonetic structure of the language, its grammatical system and vocabulary. Assimilation can involve the position of the tongue, the lips, the soft palate, and the vocal cords.

In modern English it is mainly consonants that are assimilated. In the case when the two adjacent sounds are consonants the most striking assimilative changes occur.

Types of assimilation are distinguished according to different criteria.

1.Assimilation according to the degree of stability embraces historical and obligatory assimilations.

Historical assimilation vs. actual assimilation The assimilation is historical when the sound was changed under the influence of the adjacent sounds in the course of the development of the language. Words borrowed from Norman-French permission [pər'mısjən], measure ['mezjur] are now pronounced: [pə'mı∫n], ['meʒə]. Here we see the adaptation of the articulation of /s/ and /z/ to the articulation of the /j/-phoneme. This assimilation took place in all borrowed words of the same type, but it does not function in present-day English.

Negative prefixes il-, im-, ir- were once in- (French origin), but changed under the influence of the following root sounds: impossible, illegible, irregular. These changes are reflected in spelling.

The assimilation is termed actual when the articulation of a sound changes under the influence of the neighbouring sound in the spoken language at the given period of its development.

Obligatory assimilations occur in the speech of all persons who speak a certain language, no matter what style of speech is used. Obligatory assimilations are included in the articulation basis, and, consequently, have to be mastered in acquiring the pronunciation of the spoken language. For example, in the spoken rapid speech the prepositions to, of, for, from should be pronounced as [tə], [əv], [fə], [frəm].

Non-obligatory, accidental assimilations at word boundaries result from rapid, careless and slovenly colloquial speech; they often render speech unintelligible. The alveolar consonants, /t, d, n, s, z/ in word final position often assimilate to the place of articulation of the following word initial consonant. Before /p. b, m/ the consonant /t/ changes into /p/, e.g.: that place ['ðæp 'pleıs], /d/ changes into /b/, e.g.: lead pencil /'leb 'pensl/, and /n/ changes into /m/, e.g.: main path /'mem 'pα: θ/. Before /k, ɡ/ the consonant /t/ changes into /k/, e.g.: light coat /'laık 'kзυt/, /d/ changes into /ɡ/, e.g.: good company /'ɡυɡ 'kᴧmpənı/, /n/ changes into /ŋ/, e.g.: woollen coat /'wυləŋ 'kзυt/. Before /∫,j/ the consonant /s/ changes into /∫/, e.g.:. this shop /'ðı∫ '∫op/, /s/ changes into /z/, e.g.: Has she? /hæz∫ı/. Coalescence of /t, d, s, z/ with /j/ often takes place at word boundaries in colloquial speech. Coalescence may be considered as a result of elision. Elision is likely to be minimal in slow and careful speech; it is maximal in rapid relaxed colloquial forms of speech.

2.Assimilation according to the direction includes progressive, regressive, reciprocal and coalescent ones. Principle of direction implies defining the direction in which the influence may be spread and thus the influential sound in the sequence of the two – the preceding, the following sound or the mutually influential sounds.

Progressive assimilation: the consonant changes because of the influence of the proceeding consonant, e.g.: lunch score articulated with /s/ becomes /∫/ under the influence of /t∫/. But these assimilations are less common in English. They occur in some contractions, e.g.: that’s – [ðæt∫], it’s – [ıt∫]).

Regressive assimilation takes place where the speech organs are prepared beforehand for the articulation of a sound or sounds that follow. Thus the result is that some articulatory features of the preceding sound are changed under the influence of the following sound, which remains unchanged. Regressive assimilation denotes that the influence works backwards (newspaper).

Reciprocal or double assimilation means complex mutual influence of the adjacent sounds. For example, within the word tree /tri:/ the sonorant /r/ is partly devoiced under the influence of the voiceless [t] and the alveolar /t/ becomes post-alveolar before the post-alveolar /r/. Reciprocal assimilation denotes the exchange of the influence.

Coalescent assimilation (a kind of reciprocal) takes place where two sounds fuse into a simple new segment. This type of assimilation mostly occurs at word boundaries and is typical of a colloquial speech (in won’t she the final /t/ and the initial /∫/ mutually assimilate to produce /t∫/, resulting in the fused unit /wəυnt∫i:/.

3.Assimilation according to the degree of completeness covers complete, incomplete and intermediate ones. The principle of the degree of completeness is grounded on defining the degree to which articulations are adapted.

Complete assimilation occurs in the case the two adjoining sounds become alike or merge into one. It always takes place when the two sounds differ only in one articulatory feature. This type of assimilation seldom occurs in English, e.g.: cupboard /'kᴧbəd/, halfpenny /'h:ɑpənı /.

Incomplete assimilation is the result of retaining major articulatory features by the influenced sound, e.g.: the sonorants /w, l, r/, are partly devoiced when preceded by the voiceless fortis /p, t, k, s, f, θ/ within words: sweet /swi:t/, place /pleıs/, try /traı/.

Intermediate assimilation occurs where a sound is changed completely but it does not coincide with the assimilating sound (fivepence – /faıfpens/, looked – /lυkt/).

4.Assimilation according to the changes in the position of the articulatory organs is the most typical of English. Assimilation involves changes in the position of: 1) the tongue; 2) the lips; 3) the soft palate; 4) the vocal cords.

Changes in the position of the tongue and the place of obstruction: 1. The alveolar allophones of /t, d, n, l, s, z/ are replaced by: a) the dental allophones when immediately followed by the interdental /θ/ or /ð/ within a word (eighth) and at word boundaries (Read this!, on the desk); b) the post-alveolar allophones before the post-alveolar sonorant /r/ within a word (trip, true) and at word boundaries (at rest, would read).

2. The bilabial nasal allophone of /m/ and the alveolar nasal allophone of /n/ are replaced by labio-dental allophones under the influence of immediately following labio-dental fricatives /f, v/ within a word (triumph) and at word boundaries (come for me).

Changes in the position of the soft palate. Nasal consonants that is not typical of English, may influence the adjacent plosives. Sometimes /d/ changes into /n/ under the influence of the preceding /n/, e.g.: handsome /'hændsəm >'hænnsəm >'hænsm/; handmade /'hænnmeıd/. Nasalization affects mainly the alveolar consonants, especially adjacent to the negative n’t, and is characteristic of very rapid speech, e.g.:/d/>/n/. She wouldn’t do it /∫ı ıwυnnt \du: ıt/; /d/ > /b/ > /m/ Good morning /ɡυb \mͻ:nıŋ > ɡυm \mͻ:nıŋ/.

Changes in the lip position: 1. Consonants followed by the sonorant /w/ become lip-rounded in anticipation of /w/ (twinkle). 2. Consonants in the adjacent position to /i: /, /ı/ are pronounced with spread lips (tea, beat, team) 3. Consonants are labialized in the front position to back vowels (accommodation) (moon).

5.Voice assimilation may be classified by applying general classification principles of types of assimilation: 1) according to the principle of direction: regressive and progressive assimilation; 2) according to the principle of the degree of completeness: complete and incomplete assimilation; 3) according to the principle of place in the speech chain: inside the word and at word boundaries assimilation.

Regressive voicing or devoicing implies articulatory changes in the production of the preceding sound under the influence of the following. This type is not typical of English, it is found: 1) in a few cases of historical assimilation within a compound word when the semantic independence of the first component is lost (newspaper, gooseberry, raspberry, five pence): 2) in closely connected pairs of words, e.g.: I have to /aı \hæftu/, she has to /∫ı \hæstu/.

Progressive voice assimilation implies articulatory changes in the production of the following sound under the influence of the previous one: 1) the pronunciation of the suffix -ed of regular verbs (dropped /dropt/, remained /n'meınd/; / ıd/ after /t, d/: extended /ıks'tendıd/); 2) the pronunciation of the plural and suffix -(e)s of nouns and the possessive suffix -s and of the third person singular Present Indefinite of verbs (desks /desks/); 3) /ız/ – after hissing and hushing sounds: catches /'kt æ ∫ız/).

Complete progressive voicing and devoicing usually occur in rapid informal colloquial style in the final consonants of the verbs to be and to have and in some other words: it is this /ıt ız 'dıs/ > /ıts'dıs/; he has come /hı hæz 'km/ > /hiz 'km/. Assimilations are avoided when the meaning is at stake (This fish is very good).

Incomplete voice assimilation: 1) the sonorants /m, n, l, w, r, j/ are partially devoiced when preceded by voiceless consonants /s, p, t. k, f, θ, /, e.g.: 1) within words: small, sneer, slow, sweep, spread, try, throw, cream; 2) at word boundaries the sonorants /l, r, w/ are slightly voiced if with the adjacent words they form a phrasal word or a rhythmic group, e.g.: at last, at rest.

6. Assimilation according to the manner of articulation. English plosives do not always have the stage of a sudden oral air release. The main variants of changes in the manner of their production are:

Nasal Plosion. Assimilation may affect not only the work of the soft palate; in the combination of a plosive + a nasal sonant it also affects the manner of noise production and the CC transition in English results in the nasal plosion. For example, in the word recognize the final stage of /g/ coincides with the medial stage of the sound /n/ which follows it – regressive assimilation. When a plosive is followed by the syllabic /n/ or /m/ it has no release of its own, the so-called «nasal» plosion is produced. In such sequences the closure for the plosive is made normally, but the release is produced not by a removal of the oral closure, which is retained, but by the lowering of the soft palate, which allows the compressed air to escape through the nasal cavity to form the nasal consonant, e.g.: 1) within a word: happen, shipmate, submarine, subnormal, but¬ton; 2) at word boundaries: stop moaning, escape noisily, sub man.. In Ukrainian similar combinations are pronounced with the oral plosion of the plosive consonants (recognize – close CC transition, вогні – loose CC transition.)

Lateral plosion. The manner of noise production is affected by assimilation in the combinations a plosive + the lateral sonant /l/. This is a lateral plosion. In the sequences of a plosive immediately followed by /l/ the closure produced for the plosive is not released till after /l/. Before /l/ the release is made by a sudden lowering of the sides of the tongue, and the air escapes along the sides of the tongue with lateral plosion, e.g.: please, cattle, black, candle. Ukrainian learners mispronounce these combinations inserting /ə/ inside the clusters /t/, /dl/. (bottle, мітла).

Loss of Plosion. Assimilation affects the manner of noise production in the combinations of two English plosives: /pt, pd, bd, pk, bk, tp, tk, kp, kt, ɡd/ and in the combination /kt∫/ in which the first consonant loses its plosion: the closure of the organs of speech for the second plosive is made before the release of the first. So there is only one explosion for the two plosives. The first plosive is incomplete. In the word helped the final stage of /p/ coincides with the medial stage of /t/ which follows it – close CC transition. This phenomena takes place 1) within a word: talked; object; lecture; 2) at word boundaries: good girl; good book; hot bottle.


Thus assimilations are modifications of sounds under the influence of neighbouring ones and they can be of different types relating to the degree of their stability, completeness, direction, direction, voicing value of a consonant, changes of the position (shape) of the articulating organ and manner of articulation.

Assimilations are included in the articulation basis, and, consequently, have to be mastered in acquiring the pronunciation of the spoken language. And it is obligatory for learners – future primary school teachers of foreign languages to study the phenomenon of different types of sound modifications and be able to understand and communicate native and non-native speakers’ oral speech, to become high-skilled professionals in the sphere of education.


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