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Phonetic Assimilation

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English

When we speak, we often change the ways we pronounce words. This tends to happen a lot if we speak fast. But do you know why this happens? This relates to the topic we are focusing on today - phonetic assimilation.

We will explore the definition of phonetic assimilation, the different types, and some examples of each. We will also consider the differences between assimilation, elision, and epenthesis - as it is easy to get these three processes mixed up!

Phonetic Assimilation Image of two people talking StudySmarterTwo people talking, pixabay.com

Assimilation in phonetics

Assimilation in phonetics is the process in which a sound is influenced by and becomes similar to a surrounding sound. This means that the pronunciation can vary depending on the order of certain letters in different words. This is usually done to ease pronunciation, especially when words are said quickly.

An example would be the word ‘handbag’. Native speakers rarely pronounce each letter clearly as this does not flow well and is more difficult to pronounce in fast speech. Instead, they would probably pronounce it as /hæmbæg/ (hambag).

Why is this?

This happens because both the /d/ and /b/ sounds have different places of articulation, meaning they are pronounced using different parts of the mouth:

  • /d/ is pronounced by tapping the tongue against the alveolar ridge (the part right behind your upper teeth).

  • /b/ is bilabial, meaning it is pronounced by placing both of your lips together. This makes it difficult to pronounce both of these letters sequentially, so the /d/ gets dropped.

The /n/ sound is also pronounced by tapping the tongue against the alveolar ridge, but, because it comes before the bilabial consonant /b/, it is labialised instead. This means that the /n/ sound turns into an /m/ sound. This makes it easier to pronounce the /m/ and /b/ sequentially, as they are both pronounced using the same parts of the mouth (the lips).

Other examples of words where this process occurs are sandbox, standby, windbreaker, sandwich etc.

The simplifying of consonants for ease of pronunciation can be called cluster reduction.

Types of assimilation

There are different types of assimilation depending on which sounds are altered. A sound can either be influenced by the sound that comes before it or after it. The types are as follows:

  • Progressive (before)
  • Regressive (after)

Let's look at these in more detail.

Progressive assimilation

This refers to when a sound is influenced by the sound that comes before it.

The /s/ sound is influenced by the previous sound and changes to a /z/ sound, e.g.

/bægs/ (bags) → /bægz/ (bagz)

Regressive assimilation

This refers to when a sound is influenced by the sound that comes after it.

The /n/ sound is influenced by the following sound and changes to an /m/ sound, e.g.

nfəmeɪʃən/ (information) → /ɪmfəmeɪʃən/ (imformation).

Degrees of assimilation

The types of phonetic assimilation mentioned above can further be split into two degrees: total and partial.

Total assimilation

This refers to when the sound affected by the assimilation becomes the same as the sound that causes the assimilation. You can notice this within words or across sentences.

For example, let's take the phrase 'this shoe'. In fast speech, the /s/ sound at the end of 'this' is affected by the /ʃ/ (sh sound) at the beginning of 'shoe' and changes to the /ʃ/ sound.

/ðɪs ʃuː/ (this shoe) → /ðɪʃʃuː/ (thish-shoe)

Partial assimilation

This refers to when the sound affected by the assimilation becomes similar to the sound that causes the assimilation but does not change completely.

For example, let's take the phrase 'sit back'. In fast speech, the /t/ sound is influenced by the following /b/ sound and changes to become a /p/ sound:

/sɪt bæk/ (sit back) → /sɪpbæk/ (sip-back)

/p/ is similar to a /b/ as they share the same place of articulation - both sounds are made by placing your lips together and pushing air out. But, they are not entirely the same, so this is only partial assimilation.

Partial assimilation is more common than total!

Phonetic assimilation examples

Below are some examples of phonetic assimilation

ChangeExamplesType of assimilation
/n/ changes to an /m/n pærɪs/ (in Paris) → /ɪm pærɪs/ (im Paris)/sʌnbed/ (sunbed) → /sʌmbed/ (sum-bed)Regressive
/d/ changes to a /t//mæʃd/ (mashed) → /mæʃt/ (masht)/wɒʃd/ (washed) → /wɒʃt/ (washt)Progressive
/n/ changes to an /ŋ//bænk/ (bank) → /bæŋk/ (bangk)/ɪnkərekt/ (incorrect) → ɪŋkərekt (ingcorrect)Regressive
/s/ changes to a /z//dɒgs/ (dogs) → /dɒgz/ (dogz)/rʌgs/ (rugs) → /rʌgz/ (rugz)Progressive
/v/ changes to an /f//hæv tu:/ (have to) → /hæf tu:/ (haf to)/faɪvpens/ (five pence) → /faɪf pens/ (faif pence)Regressive

Elision in phonetics vs assimilation

It is easy to mix up elision and assimilation as they often occur simultaneously, and both are processes that change the pronunciation of words.

Elision refers to when consonants are omitted from a word/phrase. This is usually done to make words or phrases easier to pronounce in fast speech. It helps the utterance flow more naturally.

In the phrase ‘you and me’, instead of pronouncing all the letters, the /d/ sound can be dropped, and the /æ/ can be replaced with a schwa /ə/ sound. The schwa sound is not as strong of a sound and makes the words flow more efficiently.

So, /juː ænd miː/ (you and me) turns into /juː ən miː/ (you ‘n me).

Epenthesis in phonetics vs assimilation

This refers to when extra sounds are added to a word. This does not change the spelling of the word, only the pronunciation.

The word ‘hamster’ may be pronounced as /hæmpstə/ (hampster), as it is easier to transition from a /p/ to an /s/ than to follow an /m/ with an /s/due to the places of articulation.

The use of the rhotic /r/ sound in words that do not contain it in the spelling. This is known as the intrusive r.

This is commonly found in most varieties of British English, where /r/ is added to words that usually would not contain one.

E.g. The word drawing is pronounced like /drɔːɪŋ/ (draw-ring).

Phonetic Assimilation - Key takeaways

  • Phonetic assimilation is the process in which a sound is influenced by and becomes similar to a surrounding sound.
  • There two types of phonetic assimilation are: progressive and regressive.
  • The two degrees of phonetic assimilation are: total and partial.
  • Elision refers to when consonants are omitted from a word/phrase.
  • Epenthesis refers to when extra sounds are added to a word.

Phonetic Assimilation

Assimilation in phonetics is the process in which a sound is influenced by and becomes similar to a surrounding sound.

The types of assimilation are progressive and regressive. These can also be split into two degrees: total or partial.

Progressive assimilation is when a sound is influenced by the sound that comes before it.

Regressive assimilation is when a sound is influenced by the sound that comes after it.

An example of assimilation is when the /n/ sound is influenced by the following sound in a word, so it becomes an /m/, e.g.:


nfəmeɪʃən/ (information) → /ɪmfəmeɪʃən/ (imformation)

Final Phonetic Assimilation Quiz

Question

What is phonetic assimilation?

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Answer

The process in which a sound is influenced by, and become similar to, a surrounding sound.

Show question

Question

What are the different types of phonetic assimilation?

Show answer

Answer

Progressive and regressive

Show question

Question

Phonetic assimilation is the process in which a sound is not affected by a surrounding sound.


True or false?

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Answer

False.


It is the process in which a sound is affected by another sound!

Show question

Question

What does progressive assimilation refer to?

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Answer

When a sound is influenced by the sound that comes before it.


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Question

What does regressive assimilation refer to?

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Answer

When a sound is influenced by the sound that comes after it.

Show question

Question

What are the degrees of assimilation?

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Answer

Total and partial 

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Question

What does total assimilation refer to?

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Answer

When the sound affected by the assimilation becomes the exact same as the sound that causes the assimilation.

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Question

What does partial assimilation refer to?

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Answer

When the sound affected by the assimilation becomes similar to the sound that causes the assimilation but does not change completely.


Show question

Question

Is the following example of assimilation progressive or regressive?


nfəmeɪʃən/ (information) → /ɪmfəmeɪʃən/ (imformation).

Show answer

Answer

Regressive

Show question

Question

Is the following example of assimilation progressive or regressive?


/wɒʃd/ (washed) → /wɒʃt/ (washt)

Show answer

Answer

Progressive

Show question

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