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I'm confused about how to pronounce -al at the end of the word.

These words end with -al and are pronounced without a "ə" sound.

  • dig·it·al /ˈdijitl/
  • men·tal /ˈmentl/

These words also end with -al, but are pronounced with a "ə" sound.

  • lo·cal /ˈlōkəl/
  • glob·al /ˈglōbəl/
  • herb·al /ˈ(h)ərbəl/

Why does the first group not have the "ə" sound, but the second group does?

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Is this about al or about all variants ending in l? Is it coincidence that all your samples end in al? –  Joachim Sauer Jul 6 '11 at 8:27
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My pronunciation may be wrong but I pronounce the second syllable in all five of those words the same way. –  Waggers Jul 6 '11 at 8:30
    
@Joachim: Thank you for your comment. I just changed the title. –  Anonymous Jul 6 '11 at 8:33
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For me, all of these words end with [əl]. –  Kosmonaut Jul 6 '11 at 12:00
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@Random832: I just thought of a minimal pair in my speech: met a lion versus metal ion. –  Peter Shor Aug 11 '11 at 17:29
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2 Answers 2

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For American pronunciation, both the Oxford dictionary's American pronunciation and the American Heritage dictionary's leave out the /ɘ/ in words like little, riddle, mantle, metal that I think of as ending /tɘl/ and /dɘl/, but not words ending in other consonants followed by /ɘl/, like /nɘl/, /bɘl/, /kɘl/. Merriam-Webster uses /təl/ and /dəl/, but /ɘl/ after other consonants; this symbolizes the same pronunciation: the /l/ is the nucleus of its own syllable, which contains no vowel.

For British pronunciation, the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary on-line uses either /l/ and /əl/ for all these words; I think it depends only on the spelling. I believe these are supposed to symbolize the same sound (no schwa). The online global Oxford dictionary seems to use /(ɘ)l/ for all of these words, meaning the schwa is optional. So presumably the schwa is supposedly left out in RP.

Going to forvo.com and listening to the pronunciation of words, it seems that Americans generally (not always) do put the schwa in after vowels other than /t/ and /d/, but many (not all) Americans leave the schwa out after /t/ and /d/. I'm not a linguist, so I can't say for sure, but I believe these variations are allophonic, meaning that English speakers will perceive them as having the same phoneme. If you leave out the schwa after /t/ or /d/, it is likely you are unaware you're doing so. Don't worry about pronouncing this "right"; you should be understood just as well either way. Even if you're trying to lose a foreign accent, judging from the pronunciations on Forvo, the variation in both native British and native American speakers is large enough that I don't think anybody will notice this.

In my comment above, I said there were no minimal pairs for /ɘl/ and syllabic /l/, because they are allophonic, but I think I was wrong. The way I speak, there are several multi-word minimal pairs; for example, metal ion versus met a lion, or mental aberration versus meant elaboration.

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My personal experience is that they are allophonic, as you suggest. You could butcher those vowels pretty badly and still be understood. FWIW, this is one of the differences in accents beween the two places I have lived: Minnesota; Texas. (+1) –  MrHen Jul 6 '11 at 14:26
    
Just a note: the Oxford dictionary gives the pronunciation of catalyst as /ˈkat(ə)lɪst/, which is clearly a case of IPA fail on their part. What I assume they mean is: either /ˈkat.əlˌɪst/ or /ˈkat.lˌɪst/. The way they've written it would be naturally read: either /ˈkat.əlˌɪst/ or /ˈkatˌlɪst/. –  Peter Shor Jul 7 '11 at 22:31
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There are two allophones of /l/ that occur in English, which may be confusing you. Let's take the word "local" as an example, since you mention it.

The first /l/ is the "light" allophone [l]. This is fairly short, transitioning straight away to the following vowel, and generally behaving in the brief manner that you would expect of a consonant.

The second /l/ is the "dark" allophone [ɫ]. While this has the same basic mouth shape (the tongue is slightly flatter against the roof of the mouth), it has a considerably longer duration. In many ways it functions more like a vowel than a consonant, as is particularly obvious with words like "little" where it is, in effect, the final vowel.

All of the words you give have "-al" as an unstressed final syllable, and they all use [ɫ] there. The vowels in unstressed syllables have a tendency to become a neutral schwa /ə/. This is a short vowel, and in turn tends to shorten in favour of the following /l/, either disappearing entirely or becoming so short it might as well have disappeared.

Exactly how much the schwa disappears seems to be a personal thing; you make one list, @Kosmonaut pronounces them all with a schwa, I pronounce them all without. I don't think there is a general rule, because I don't think there is general agreement.

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I don't think the allophones of /l/ are relevant here: for most varieties of English, all these words have 'dark l'. What is at issue is whether syllabic 'l' and 'schwa + l' are different, either phonemically or phonetically. –  Colin Fine Jul 6 '11 at 14:07
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Fair point. I introduced the business of allophones because it's easily overlooked that [ɫ] acts in many ways like a vowel. –  user1579 Jul 6 '11 at 17:45
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