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. . . at last [ət-lӕst] . . [audio source]

I guess, from the two lots’ pronunciations, that when [ӕ] is accompanied by [ӕ], one which is lesser important in meaning becomes weaker and change into a schwa sound. Is this a typical pattern?

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But last is pronounced /lɑːst/. /æ/ is used in a word like flat. Or are we talking of American pronunciation or some other non-standard form? – Andrew Leach Feb 20 '13 at 9:33
The change in the vowel has nothing to do with two front vowels coming together, and everything to do with at being an unstressed syllable in at last. Nobody weakens either of the vowels in rat trap. – Peter Shor Feb 20 '13 at 10:58
@PeterShor Incorporate that into an answer and I'll upvote it. – StoneyB Feb 20 '13 at 12:36
Those two vowels are not in any way “meeting”: they have two different consonant phonemes intervening between them. – tchrist Feb 20 '13 at 17:46
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The change in the vowel in at last has nothing to do with the fact that two open-front vowels are near each other. Nobody weakens the vowels in rat trap, another phrase with two /ӕ/ vowels. The reason the vowel is weakened in at last is that the word at is unstressed.

Vowels in unstressed syllables in English are often reduced, meaning they change into a /ə/. In the phrase at last, and in many similar phrases (at odds, at most, at least), the word at is unstressed, and the vowel tends to be reduced to /ə/. You can see that in at odds and at most, the two vowels are not both open front; yet the vowel in at is still weakened.

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In ordinary rapid speech, only stressed vowels are unreduced. Everything else gets centralized, usually to an allophone of /ə/. – John Lawler Feb 20 '13 at 17:21
@John: Right, but I didn't want to bring up secondary stress in my answer (i.e., the second syllable of "rattrap"). – Peter Shor Feb 20 '13 at 19:44
Stress is stress; if it keeps the vowel from centralizing, that's good enough. – John Lawler Feb 21 '13 at 4:36

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