Weak Forms

When we talk about weak forms in the phonetics of English this regards a series of words which have one pronunciation (strong) when isolated, and another (weak) when not stressed within a phrase, e.g.                      

a car /ˈeɪ ˈkɑ:/

I bought a car /aɪ ˈbɔ:t ə ˈkɑ:/


Weak forms are usually distinguished by a change in vowel quality from a border position on the vowel quadrilateral to a central position. The vowel in a weak form is usually the schwa (ə). Weak forms are pronounced more quickly and at lower volume  in comparison to the stressed syllables. They are also not central to changes in intonation.


Fig. 1. The change of position of vowel production for the articulation of weak forms.

          There is a logical explanation behind the occurrence of weak forms: they are present in words which are necessary to construct a phrase yet, at the same time, do not communicate a large quantity of information, in other words, they are not content words. For example in the following phrase:

        I went to the hotel and booked a room for two nights for my father and his best friend.   

the most important words, those that are central to the message, can be emphasised: 

I went to the hotel and booked a room for two nights for my father and his best friend.

 if we eliminate the words that are not emphasised, can we still understand the message?

    went         hotel        booked   room       two nights          father          best   friend.

  Perhaps it is difficult to be certain but it is possible to predict what the missing words might be.

  The words which we emphasised would bear the stress, while many of those which we eliminated would become weak forms, simply because they are less important in the conveyance of the message. Look at the sentence in transcription: 

/aɪ ˈwent tə ðə həʊ ˈtel ən ˈbʊkt ə ˈru:m fə ˈtu: ˈnaɪts fə maɪ ˈfɑ:ðər ən hɪz ˈbest ˈfrend/

You will notice that most of the unstressed words are pronounced with the sound /ə/: prepositions such as to and  for, articles a, an and the, and the conjunction and. Auxiliary verbs frequently have weak forms.