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I sometimes hear words like "Willam" or "Wilkinson" pronounced like /'wəl-jəm/ or /'wəɫ̩-kən-sən/, rather than /'wɪɫ̩-jəm/ or /'wɪɫ̩-kən-sən/. In other words, the /wɪɫ̩/ cluster is sometimes swapped with /wəl/. It seems to me like the former word William is especially affected by such coarticulation(?) when it's following or followed by another word, say Sherwin-Williams or William Shakespeare in a bit rapid speech.

Am I just getting it wrong as a non-native speaker? Or is there any phonological/linguistic background on this?

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    Where are you? I am in the US, and have not noticed this.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 12:46
  • I'm not in the US because I'm a non-native English learner.
    – BehdadB
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 12:48
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    In English, vowels often do strange things before /l/. This one isn't listed in Wikipedia's page English language vowel changes before historic l, but some speakers might have this merger. Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 12:52
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    Oh you hear /ɪ/ in the lexico link. Perhaps I can say it sounds to me like /'wʊɫ̩-jəm/.Wull-yum.Actually Webster says "will" is pronounced /wəl/ in its weak form. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/will I think it sounds a bit different from /ɪ/ in wit, wish or which, maybe because I'm not used to English vowels though.
    – BehdadB
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 14:51
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    @Mitch; the vowel schwa never appears in a stressed syllable by definition. But in many dialects of British English, the vowel /ɜː/ in nurse is distinguished from schwa only by length and stress, and in many dialects of American English, the vowel /ʌ/ in strut is distinguished from schwa only by stress. So saying that schwa never appears in a stressed syllable is beside the point here. Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 20:22

1 Answer 1

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There is actually a phonological change in some American English accents where General American /ɪ/ is moving towards [ə]. This change is part of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which has been happening in and around cities in the Great Lakes region since the 1930s or so.

Here's a clip of news anchor Jeff Russo pronouncing "Williamsville" with a very schwa-like vowel in the first syllable. Russo is originally from Rochester, NY, a city where the accent is considered a canonical example of this vowel shift.

There are many American accents unaffected by this change, but it's possible that some of the instances you've observed are the result of the Northern Cities shift.

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    Also, postvocalic /l/ in English is velarized ("dark"), and that tends to move front vowels back; I've even heard "Wooliam" with a high back rounded lax vowel instead of high front unrounded vowel. Skipping the central vowel completely. Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 19:59
  • I checked out the video and that's what I meant.I think the merger frequently occurs in words containing "will", such as "willfully" or "willpower".This also occurs in we'll(though its IPA is /wil/).According to Webster and CMU, the word "will" is surely pronounced /wəl/ merriam-webster.com/dictionary/will linguistics.berkeley.edu/~kjohnson/English_Phonetics/… /wəl/ 9:40 ...for those who willfully... 10:00 ... powers escalates we'll be... 11:32 ... high impact deliberate willful or... youtube.com/watch?v=H-OxIzDOym0
    – BehdadB
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 12:19
  • Let me ask another question if possible. I can pronounce /'wɪɫ̩-jəm/ slowly, but when I try to say it in regular speed, it's getting very hard and I'll end up with something similar to /'wəɫ̩-jəm/(or /'wʊɫ̩-jəm/), /'wɪ:-jəm/(where the /ɪ:/ is not /i/.It's just a longer edition of kit/kɪt/ vowel.) or /'wɪl-jəm/(where /l/ is light l) .I think it's because my tongue tip doesn't touch the alveolar ridge when I pronounce dark l/ɫ̩/. Is /'wɪɫ̩-jəm/, William with dark l, even possible in a fast daily speech? I can pronounce million, billion or zillion, but I just can't William.
    – BehdadB
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 13:16
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    Interesting question! To answer it well we'd need an imaging study to determine exact tongue positions, but based on articulatory phonetics, I'd say yes, mostly. The "mostly" part is because speakers who use an on-target /ɪ/ would produce a less velarized [ɫ] here than they would after a back vowel as in the word "fall." In "William" the sequence [ɪɫj] requires the tongue body to go from front to back to front again very quickly, which is physically difficult, so the middle one is likely to be less accurate as rate of speech increases.
    – Aralcar
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 23:06
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    @Aralcar >a less velarized [ɫ] here than they would after a back vowel as in the word "fall." That is probably the exact answer I wanted. I personally find it easier to make the sound you pointed out when I try to mimic "light l" with the tongue tip off the alveolar ridge.That way I can make "light-or-nuh l" sound, which would be caused somewhere in the middle of velar and palatal(lighter than usual /ɫ̩/), and lighter than "fall" or "full" yet darker than "like" or "laughter ". By the way some people seem to pronounce million as /mɪʎən/.
    – BehdadB
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 7:30

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