Pool boys and reduction: how to understand spoken American English

Sordid tryst followed sordid tryst. Then there was some phonology. Want to understand what “gonna” means? Read on.

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Some years ago, a beautiful summer afternoon found a much younger and cuter me at a picnic, chatting with a new acquaintance.  We quickly switched from English (my native language) to Spanish (not my native language), at which point he began telling me, in great detail, about what a slut his wife was.  Story of sordid tryst followed story of sordid twist–she even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…  


Linguists often split words into two categories: content words and function words.  Content words are words that you could think of as having a fixed meaning–nouns, verbs, and adjectives, for the most part.  In contrast, function words tell you things about grammatical and semantic connections–the, to, not–and include words without fixed meanings.  That means pronouns–I, we, she…

In languages that have stress, function words are often unstressed.  That makes them more likely to be misunderstood, or not to be understood at all.  It’s sometimes a problem even for native speakers of such languages, and it can be a really big problem for non-native speakers.  This lesson was brought home to me in a big way when I realized that I’d been confusing the pronouns that my interlocutor was using in our Spanish-language conversation.  He wasn’t telling me what a slut his wife was–he was telling me what a slut he was.  I even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…


This loss of distinctiveness of pronouns (and other function words) is an example of 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.  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 second one, on the topic of the reduction of going to to gonna, 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!

Want to know more about reduction in American English?  Check out my video on the pronunciation of “let me” as “lemme:”

9 thoughts on “Pool boys and reduction: how to understand spoken American English”

  1. I can’t help but wonder how these subtlties evolve into dialects where it’s not just the odd (1/10) word you miss, but half of them. My little understanding of Bavarian is that it is full of issues like that. I may by now have heard more of the deeper weejie (Glaswegian) accents and my impression is similar.

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  2. Great story to open with. As a writer listening to the spoken language in the U.S., I’ve been struck by what may be a reduction or may be a totally different thing–I’m no linguist: the dropping of some of the small words altogether. An example–and not a deliberate one–is the way I opened this comment by saying simply “great story” instead of “that’s a great story.”

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    1. “Reduction” as a technical term usually applies strictly to phonological phenomena. However, it’s certainly the case that the phenomenon that you’re describing no applies to function words for the most part, so there’s probably some underlying relationship.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Not content to see a reduction for what it is on it’s own, I had to wonder about the statistical relationship between the frequency of n-grams and their reductions. Maybe it’s obvious. People say “I am going to” all the time and to see a reduction for it isn’t suprising. Their must be a corpus of spoken language around…shoudn’t there?

    Liked by 1 person

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