Saturday, April 20, 2013

Stretching Content Words and Compressing Function Words – Spectrogram

Content words (such as nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and negatives) are generally pronounced long, strong, clear, and high. Function words (such as possessive adjectives, relative pronouns, articles, prepositions, and simple forms of the verb BE) are usually short, weak, unclear, and low in pitch. 

Listeners (speakers) of English recognize important words by the length, strength, and clarity with which they’re spoken in a given utterance. The less important function words are compressed to make room for the content words.

Several times through my book Phrase by Phrase Pronunciation in American English, I present the importance of stressing content words and reducing function words. Yet learners are not easily able to perceive these invisible elements of prosody in spoken English.

In my advanced accent modification class, I ask students to post a weekly reflection on what they learned or what they had difficulty with. On the topic of stressed and reduced words in a phrase, a very analytical and fluent yet accented speaker wrote that he “unfortunately didn't hear any difference between content and function words.”

In hopes of augmenting the perceptibility of stressed and reduced syllables and words, I've selected a few phrases, and I've added the visual element of a spectrogram to the auditory element of sound and the textual information in varying font size.

When you look at the spectrogram as you listen to the sound file, can you tell that the content words are longer in duration (wider left to right) and louder, that is, greater in amplitude (wider top to bottom)?


  1. yes I can tell with the spectogram

  2. Very clear. Thanks for sharing this. Does your student hear the difference now? I have a student who cannot hear or feel the difference between the aspirated "h" and the "h" beginning with a glottal stop. He can produce the two sounds when he concentrates and repeats after me, but doesn't realy understand the difference. Now I'm trying to figure out the best way to enable him to understand these two sounds.

  3. Pamela, thank you for your comment. Yes, the student whose remark inspired me to create this learning object responded with thanks, stating that with the spectrogram he can differentiate function vs. content words. Another replied that it is really helpful for all students.