Wednesday, 31 March 2010

you and you

A query reaches Dear Professor Wells.
Hello! My name is xxx. Im from argentina. I wanted to know when i should use the ju: and ju. It has to do with the vowel or consonat followed?

It’s difficult to know how best to answer this kind of query. The grammatical and spelling errors (reproduced here without correction) make it clear that the person making the query has not achieved a very high standard of English, nor indeed of literacy.
What does she mean by asking when to “use” juː and ju? If she wants to know which words I would transcribe with one and which with the other, the simple answer is to look them up in the dictionary. Possibly, though, the query is a more abstract and sophisticated one: how do I determine when to write one, and when the other. The brief answer to this depends on the distinction I draw in English between strong vowels and weak vowels.
Weak vowels are the vowels that can result from the weakening of strong vowels. They are found only in unstressed syllables. The English weak vowels are i, u and ə), plus sometimes ɪ and ʊ.
So if the vowel we are concerned with is in a lexically stressed syllable, we must write it juː — for example beauty ˈbjuːti, acute əˈkjuːt, amusement əˈmjuːzmənt. The same is true if it is in a strong (though unstressed) syllable: for example avenue ˈævənjuː, attitude ˈætɪtjuːd.
You will find ju only in a weak syllable. Examples include valuation ˌvæljuˈeɪʃən and stimulation ˌstɪmjuˈleɪʃən (though in the latter you can also get as the weak vowel, thus ˌstɪmjəˈleɪʃən). If the preceding consonant is an alveolar plosive, the j element usually coalesces with it to give a palato-alveolar affricate, as in situation ˌsɪtʃuˈeɪʃən: that is, tju→tʃu. In words where weak (j)u is followed by ə, for example annual ˈænjuəl, Samuel ˈsæmjuəl, the two vowels may combine into a diphthong, and there may be further vowel reductions. Study the entries for words such as actual(ly), gradual(ly).
Or perhaps the query is still more sophisticated, and is triggered by the fact that I transcribe in stimulus ˈstɪm jʊl əs but ju in stimulate ˈstɪm ju leɪt. This is a by-product of my analysis of syllabification, and I find that in my own pronunciation and that of many others that the back weak vowel is not as tense/high in closed syllables as it can be in open syllables.
But that isn’t something I want to try to explain to someone who not only confuses ‘following’ with ‘followed’ but doesn’t even know how to formulate a yes/no question in English.
At an elementary or intermediate level you can achieve a perfectly acceptable standard of English pronunciation by totally ignoring the distinctions I draw between strong , strong ʊ and weak u, ʊ. After all, millions of native speakers (those who come from Scotland and Ulster) ignore them.


  1. As an Argentinean student of English, I'd say that she recently started with phonetics study. In my experience, these kinds of differences (long vs. shortened vowel) present much trouble among freshmen. My advice would be to practice (a lot); that worked out great for me. I'm not saying I'm an expert, I'm just sharing my view and experience; I still have a lot to learn.

  2. I think the distinction between weak /I/ and weak /i/ isn't just a open vs closed syllable thing: some speakers with a tense vowel in "study" would also use in "studied" which is then distinct from "studded" which has a lax vowel. I can't think of any similar example for /U/ vs /u/, right now, though.

  3. That leads to an interesting generalization: RP /tju:/ = AmE /tu/, but RP, AmE /tju/ > /tSu/. So despite the loss of significant vowel length in AmE, it controls whether the AmE form will be de-yodized or palatalized.

  4. @army1987:

    Yes. I would have a three-way distinction between "studied" with /i/, "studded" with /I/ and "stud'd" (contraction of "stud had") with /@/.

  5. Did you really have to be such an arse Professor Wells?
    I'd like to see a piece of writeen discourse in Spanish or whatever language you were learning back when you were her age (She's probably in her teens/twenties).

  6. Prof. Wells,

    you are an excellent phonetics lecturer but you are sometimes, and I agree with "Anonymous 1", a real arse. There is no need to have so derogatory words for someone who is clearly learning English (I think I'm still learning by the way).

    You encourage us to ask you questions about phonetics and I sometimes feel discouraged when you treat peple like that. What if you were a waiter serving a foreigner in a restaurant? You wouldn't give him or her any food just because s/he doesn't speak properly and laugh at his or her face?

    Is it a crime not having learnt enough English? This is not the first time you have treated somenone like this. When you do so, I feel that you are the phonetics Nazi instead of the phonetics lecturer (cf. the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld

  7. edit: "people" not "peple"

  8. I must admit that as a native speaker (and not one from Scotland or Ulster) I don't have any intuition at all for this distinction between u and . To me the second vowel in valuation and the third in avenue are perceived as the same. Do RP speakers tend to perceive more of a difference there than I do?

    i and are a slightly different matter, as the former is in many words identified with /ɪ/ (essentially when it's not followed by a vowel); for me studied has /ɪ/ and studded has /ə/.

  9. Dear Anonymous -
    Please reread what I wrote. There are no "derogatory words" in my comments. I do not regard mistakes in English as a "crime". On the contrary, I have every sympathy for someone struggling with a foreign language. I know how hard it can be.
    My problem was that of deciding what best to reply to someone with the level of English implied by the question she submitted. (She did of course receive a private reply different from what you see in my blog.) If you can formulate a better reply, please do so and let us all see it.

  10. Couldn't the question be about how to choose between the strong and the weak form of the personal pronoun "you"?

  11. JHJ, do you rhyme "valley-ed" and "valid"? (I took this example from

  12. army1987 (23:33): you may very well be right.

  13. @army1987: I doubt I've ever said "valley-ed" - "rallied" would be better if you're just looking for a rhyme - but basically yes.

  14. Frindt Levente1 April 2010 at 10:48

    John Cowan said...

    That leads to an interesting generalization: RP /tju:/ = AmE /tu/, but RP, AmE /tju/ > /tSu/. So despite the loss of significant vowel length in AmE, it controls whether the AmE form will be de-yodized or palatalized.

    Yes, I agree, that is indeed interesting. It is even more interesting that there appear to be some exceptions. E.g. AmE "volume" retains the yod along with a strong vowel. (Even when it has ʊ, this must I think be regarded a strong vowel in the closed syllable it occurs. I don't think it's possible for this word to have schwa) There are other exceptions, but I can't think of any at the moment.

  15. American yod dropping only affects /j/ before a *tautosyllabic* coronal (compare anew with unused), so all you have to do to explain such words as volume is to syllabify it as /vAl.jum/.
    (Instead, British /tj/ -> /tS/ occurs even in places such as what you which is about as strong a morpheme boundary as you can get.)

  16. @Frindt Levente:

    AmE yod-dropping only applies, in general, to stressed syllables. Indeed, there is at least one word, "figure", where the unstressed yod has been preserved in AmE but not BrE.

  17. Whist I despise those anonymous followers who call you an "arse" and a "Nazi" (that surely is unacceptable), I think you make too easy a judgement, JW, about her standards of literacy and of English. This enquirer is more interesting that you acknowledge: her standards of literacy are peculiar rather than just low. She has exactly one space between words, a capital letter at the start of every sentence, full-stops and exclamation marks and question marks in the right places, and only one typo ("consonat" for "consonant"). So that's all pretty punctilious. Her treatment of capital letters and apostrophes is eccentric, but equally punctilious - there are no apostrophes at all, and no capital letters within the sentence (and surely "Argentina" is normally capitalised in Spanish, which one would assume is her native language)? This is not the usual slovenliness [Somebody won't like that word! - DR] that characterises teenage netspeak. Rather, it reads like someone who's attentive to detail, but hasn't yet decided to embrace the proper conventions.

    You could say the same about her idiom and syntax. "I wanted to know..." - an excellent use of the past tense to convey deference. " know when i should..." - correct use of the non-inverted form in indirect questions. "...has to do with..." - absolutely the right idiomatic phrase in this context. Against that, there's a wrong "the" in "the ju:", the principal question is not inverted, and she's given up on "following/followed". So again, I think it's a clever girl who's following her own conventions. It's like small children who stick with their own version of the language ('teached', 'go-ed') until they're ready to follow the adult crowd.

    The third thing to notice is that her phonetics question is pretty sophisticated. How many learners of English have you met who on the one hand hadn't got as far as inverting the auxiliary to frame a question, but on the other hand had the wit to ask about stressed and unstressed /u:/?

  18. Dear Derek:

    I didn't say JCW was a Nazi. What I said was that he was the phonetics Nazi and also said that you had to compare this situation with the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld ( Watch the episode and you'll know what I exactly meant.

    Dear JCW:

    My opinion is the same. I still think that your words sounded a bit derogatory. At least, I would've felt derogated or a bit offended if you had told me something like "But that isn’t something I want to try to explain to someone who not only confuses ‘following’ with ‘followed’ but doesn’t even know how to formulate a yes/no question in English".

    I recognise that you didn't say anything similar to the word crime but you have to be a little bit modest and recognise that your words were a bit rude, weren't they? No better reply would've come from me because I don't know as much as you do. I hope I do someday.

    As Derek Rogers said, her question was sophisticated. And I would feel glad to answer a question like that even coming from a person who's just beginning to learn. I was a student and I know what it feels like when some teachers said "learn a bit more and you'll be able to ask those questions".

    In spite of this unfortunate incident, I admire your work. I really do. And I would be very glad to see that what I understood is not what you really meant.

  19. If my experience is any guide, the Anglo-Saxon tend to be, at times, as chauvinist about their language and supercilious towards its non-native speakers as the French are or have the opinion of being (or of having been). I have been quite a few times berated for my 'lousy' English just because I in it [that is: in my English, whether 'lousy' or not] expressed disagreement (not on matters of English, in most cases) with a person of Anglo-Saxon extraction. In this case, though, the strange thing is that the 'argentinian' did not disagree with Professor Wells at all, but simply asked him a question. Well, an appropriate reaction following (sorry: followed...). But yet, let us be just to Professor Wells, he did answer the 'argentinian' question in great detail.