The citation form of 'twelfth' in all the dictionaries I've checked is /twelfθ/, but the other day I thought I caught myself eliding the /f/. Was that me being 'sloppy' or is this something that we tend to do in colloquial speech?Given that Robin is the newsletter editor of the IATEFL Pronunciation SIG, one can only assume that the question is somewhat faux-naïf. You’d think he would not just THINK but KNOW whether he ‘caught himself’ performing a common casual-speech reduction. Whether or not one calls such reductions ‘sloppy’ is not a phonetic question but rather a reflection of how far we have shaken off (or otherwise) popular attitudes to language and acquired a degree of scientific objectivity. Anyone interested in English pronunciation must surely know that this reduction IS something we tend to do in colloquial speech. So why ask us?
Nit-picking, I might further object that you can’t elide phonemes. Phonemes are mental representations, and I would prefer to say that it is a not a mental construct /f/ but a physical segment (speech sound) [f] that might or might not be elided.
Anyhow, I just replied
Jack Windsor Lewis gave a longer answer.
In my opinion anyone who pronounces twelfth in clearly the way dictionaries seem to suggest is normal actually produces something very likely to sound artificial and pedantic. I dou•t that anyone much notices if in naturally fluent speech [twelθ] is used. I'm uncomfortable that dictionaries generally suggest that [twelθ] is a less usual than versions with at least two simultaneous fricatives. Those who aim at saying /twelfθ/ and succeed in not sounding abnormally deliberate in the way they say it probably always have at least some overlap of the two fricatives and may sometimes produce a bilabial voiceless fricative at the same time. A phonetic notation [twelθ͡f] wdnt be far wrong.
I felt happiest recommending in my Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English (Oxford University Press 1972,1979) "twelfθ with f and θ usually made simultaneously".
I surely cannot be the only one whose ordinary slow pronunciation of this word is indeed twelfθ. OK, the labiodental and dental fricatives certainly overlap (though surely the labiodental turbulence starts before the dental). But segment overlap is nothing new or exceptional. The l in this word overlaps with the f, too. The w overlaps with the t. The mental representation underlying my articulation is clearly twelfθ, and that formulation faithfully represents the articulatory targets that my actual articulations may or may not achieve (depending, as usual, on speech rate, formality etc.).
Similarly, I have no hesitation in claiming that my basic pronunciation of sixth is sɪksθ. And that of clothes, kləʊðz.
True, there are speakers for whom reduced forms of various kinds have been lexicalized, so that the unreduced form is in some sense irrecoverable. Most (all?) of us have lexicalized the two-syllable reduction of every (i.e. ˈevri rather than ˈevəri). I’m aware that for victory I personally do not feel at all happy with the dictionary form ˈvɪktəri, since I feel I can naturally say only ˈvɪktri. On the other hand I cannot go along with people who claim that police is pliːs — for me, although I might sometimes reduce it this way in rapid speech, it is basically unquestionably pəˈliːs, i.e. comparable to polite and pollution rather than to pleat and playful.
Similarly, for me twelfth is not a good rhyme for health.