When /tə/ isn’t /tə/

schwa is good
Student love for the schwa

to – one of those words that, most of the time, is unstressed and uses the schwa /ə/, right?

That’s what I thought until one of my Delta Module 2 input sessions this week when my mind was thoroughly blown. It turns out it’s dependent on what comes next.

Let’s take an example with telling the time, as last year both me and my Primary students had fun when drilling weak forms.

  1. It’s ten to two.
  2. It’s ten to eight.

In the first example, all is as expected: to is unstressed /tə/.

But in the second example other phonological rules come into play, don’t they? Schwa /ə/ is a vowel and is followed by eight which starts with the diphthong /eɪ/.

What happens with two consecutive vowels in connected speech? Why I’m glad you asked – what we get is an intrusive /j/, /r/ or /w/ depending on the sounds involved. Here it’s /w/.

In #2, I think the schwa is still there (though I am no phonology expert and could be wrong). I think that most of the time, there is still the intrusive /w/ which means it comes out as /təweɪt/. Most of the time. I’ve been saying it to myself and sometimes I’ve not heard or felt my mouth move to the /w/ position at all. But in another example such as to eat /təwiːt/, the /ə/ and /w/ are clearly there to my ear (and pronounced differently to tweet /twiːt/).

So, what does this mean for the classroom? The way we drill the sentence (or phrase) changes. It’s not quite as simple as /tə/ + /eɪt/. We naturally introduce the /w/ when speaking at full speed, but is it always there when drilling? I’m not sure. I think it’s entirely possible I’ve oversimplified it when teaching.

Going forward, I’ll be watching out for this!

Over to you: Have you thought about this aspect of the schwa before? What have you learned or been surprised by in your teaching of phonology?