Zipf’s Law English: reduction

Spoken American English can be very difficult to understand. Here’s a video to help you cope with one of the problems therewith.

Walking out of the exam on oral comprehension during the testing for the Diplôme approfondi de langue française a couple months ago, I found a very unhappy-looking young man waiting for the elevator.  Are you OK?  He shook his head glumly: I flunked again, I know it.  I made sympathetic noises.  Was this your first time taking the test?  I responded in the affirmative.  He gave me a look of pity–clearly the expectation was that I was going to find the experience as brutal as he had.  Repeatedly, apparently.

Indeed, the oral comprehension exam got me my worst score out of the whole test.  Spoken French and spoken English can both be brutally difficult to understand if they’re not your native language, and for many of the same reasons.  One of those is their sets of vowels–both languages have vowel “inventories” (the technical term) that are shared by relatively few languages.  Another is a process called reduction, which leads to things having a range of ways that they could be pronounced, some of which are less distinct than others.  For example, in French, some unstressed vowels are optional in casual spoken language, so that cheveux is often pronounced chveux, matelot can be pronounced matlot, and so on.  Furthermore, the sounds that are “left behind” can be changed as a result, so that, for example, the in je becomes pronounced as ch when je suis is “reduced” to chuis.  So, when I describe this as becoming “less distinct,” think about this.  In French, there are these two words, and the difference between them is the sound of versus the sound of ch:

  • le jar: secret language, argot
  • le char: chariot; in Canada, car.

When becomes ch, as in chuis, the difference between the two sounds goes away, and in that sense, a “reduced” word is less distinct from other words than it might have been.

Reduction processes are rampant in spoken American English, and they can make the language pretty difficult to understand if you’re not a native speaker.  I’m trying my hand at putting some videos together that aim to help people learn to understand these reductions.  You can find the first one, on the topic of the reduction of let me to lemme, at the link below.  If you’re as mystified by spoken American English as I am by spoken French, check it out–I’d love to have feedback on what does and doesn’t work, whether that be here on this blog, or in the Comments section on YouTube.  Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the whole subtitle thing, and I’d like to know to what extent that does or doesn’t interfere with the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the video.  Any input at all would be appreciated, though!

13 thoughts on “Zipf’s Law English: reduction”

  1. Hello man, nice to see your face and hear your voice ! Perfectly clear explanation . I guess you could add “ain’t”, “gonna”, “wanna” and more .
    And “chai pas” for “je ne sais pas”, “c’te” for “cette”, like in “Ouah! C’te blague!” to express you don’t believe something .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this. Of course I’m the one struggling with French pronunciation rather than English, but the video works really well. Very straightforward, very clear and I would imagine extremely helpful to a non-native English speaker. By the way, in the US, I sometimes struggle and I know that some Americans struggle to understand me also …. part of that being a struggle to keep a straight face when faced with a woman who actually does have a Downton Abbey upstairs accent 😂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. 1) Google was not super-helpful with defining “upstairs accent” for me, but I found this:

      > Brought up poor by his mother (a background belied by his exquisitely tuned, upstairs accent), he went on to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

      …from which I infer that the contrast (belied by) between “poor” and “exquisitely tuned, upstairs accent” means that “upstairs accent” is more “My Fair Lady after” than “My Fair Lady before”? (Not to make fun of the rich texture of UK accents–it just escapes us Americans completely, and we lack even the vocabulary to describe them.)

      2) If I get much further north than, say, London, I have enormous trouble understanding Brits–I could go on and on about my linguistic incompetence in this language that we share. “We” in the sense of me, and the equally-native speakers of, say, Manchester, or even Cambridge…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My husband is a Scouse (born and raised in Liverpool), I am from Oxford. He moved to France in 1980 and to Boston in 1990 so his accent is naturally odd but I understand him perfectly. Except when he is in the bosom of his family back in ‘The Pool’ – then the Scouse rises to the surface and he becomes entirely indecipherable to one from the land of dreaming spires and The Dictionary! Upstairs is a reference to the old days of large houses where the owners resided above the servants. I have that accent – some call it ‘posh’ but I actually hate that handle (Cockney term for a label or name) …Foreigners tend to like me because my enunciation is very clear Brits mock me because I sound like something from a different era and in unguarded moments genuinely do say things like ‘oh golly gosh’ and ‘jolly good’ and gung-ho old chap. It’s my cross to bear 😉


      2. My wife Mandy speaks with what is recognized as an English accent, but grew up in Glasgow. Not only can she understand the spoken language in “Train Spotting”, but argues with the captions.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. An Italian woman, Flora, was here in Denver doing a postdoc. Playing softball, as you do, she actually hit the ball and ran to first base. Her coach yelled “good Hustle!”. She heard “asshole”. Confusion (good asshole?) and hassle ensued.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

%d bloggers like this: