Weak form and strong form
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- For weak and strong forms of a differential equation, see finite element method.
In the phonology of stress-timed languages, the weak form of a word is a form that may be used when the word has no stress, and which is phonemically distinct from the strong form used when the word is stressed. The strong form serves as the citation form. A weak form is an unstressed syllable, and is therefore distinct from a clitic form, which is not a syllable at all but rather fused with the end syllable of an adjacent word. A word may have multiple weak forms, or none. In some contexts, the strong form may be used even where the word is unstressed.
In English, most words will have at least one stressed syllable, and hence no separate strong and weak forms. All words which do have distinct strong and weak forms are monosyllables, and are usually function words or discourse particles. For most of these, the weak form is the one usually encountered in speech. As the extreme example, the strong form of the indefinite article a [eɪ] is used only in the rare cases when the word is stressed: naming the word, or when emphasising indefiniteness (e.g. QUESTION:"Did you find the cat?" ANSWER: "I found a cat." [i.e. maybe not the one you were referring to]). Otherwise the weak form [ə] is used for a.
The main words with weak forms in Received Pronunciation are:
- a, am, an, and, are, as, at, be, been, but, can, could, do, does, for, from, had, has, have, he, her, him, his, just, me, must, of, shall, she, should, some, than, that, the, them, there, to, us, was, we, were, who, would, you
Other dialects or accents may have others. Many Americans have a weak form [jɚ] for your, which is occasionally spelled "yer". In Hiberno-English, there is a weak form [mi] for my, often spelled "me". A greater difference between strong and weak forms, and a more widespread use of weak forms, are associated with less formal registers, and may be indicated in writing by eye dialect spellings, such as ’em for them [əm]. The most formal register in this sense is singing, where strong forms may be used almost exclusively, apart from a.
In deriving weak forms from strong forms, the vowel is usually more central and may be shortened, sometimes merging to a syllabic consonant with any following [l], [m] or [n]. Changes to consonants are less frequent: an initial |h is dropped unless the word is at the start of an utterance, and dental consonants may be elided at the end of the word. For example:
- The word and has strong form [ænd] and weak forms [ənd], [ən], [nd], [n].
- The word to has strong form [tuː], weak form [tʊ] before vowels, and weak form [tə] before consonants.
The 'em form of them is derived from the otherwise obsolete synonym hem: an unusual form of suppletion.
Some weak forms have restricted usage. For example, in RP usage:
- Dropping the [h] of her is common in "I saw her yesterday" but not in "I saw her mother" (possessive her).
- Demonstrative that uses the strong form even when unstressed. "I like that colour" (demonstrative, strong), as against "I like that you like it" (conjunction, weak).
- Stranded auxiliaries and prepositions use the strong form. "I found what I'm looking for." (stranded for, strong) as against "I'm looking for money" (for before noun, weak).
- M Luisa Garcia Lecumberri (2000). English Transcription Course. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-340-75978-X.