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When looking up the pronunciation for a word like "people" some sources says /pi:pl/ other says /pi:pəl/ (possibly whith the schwa in parenthesis or superscript). I guess both are considered correct.

Can this be generalized? That whenever a syllabic l, m, n or r appears that it can be preceeded by a schwa? Or reverse that whenever l, m, n or r appears after a schwa that the schwa can be dropped making the consonant syllabic?

Or phrased differently if a native speaker pronunces l, m, n and/or r syllabically would he ever pronunce əl, əm, ən and/or ər (as the end of a syllable)? Or the reverse if a native speaker pronunces əl, əm, ən and/or ər (as the end of a syllable) would he ever pronunce l, m, n and/or r syllabically? And for the sake of being understood is there any example where the different pronunciations would change the meaning of the word?

I mean in terms of actual pronunciation (ie pronounce it with a little vowel sound before the consonant).

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    Yes, both are considered "correct". The problem is that everybody has their own habits about what to do with final syllabic resonants. They take up a syllable, but they're not vowels; should you put a vowel in there even if you can't hear it separately from the resonant? Good question. The answer is you make a decision about how you write it, and stick to it. There are character markings for syllabic L M N R, and you can use them, or something similar, as long as you're consistent. May 16, 2023 at 15:17
  • @JohnLawler I meant in terms of actual pronunciation. Is it correct to actually pronounce the schwa in these cases?
    – skyking
    May 16, 2023 at 15:20
  • Get that word "correct" out of your linguistic vocabulary. Correctness is irrelevant except in primary school. If you say a schwa, you'll be understood. But the best thing to do is imitate a native. If you don't have natives to imitate, there is nothing that could be called "correct". May 16, 2023 at 15:26
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    What the schwa in parentheses or as a superscript actually means is that you can pronounce it either /pi:pl/ or /pi:pəl/, so that should answer your question. May 16, 2023 at 15:40
  • @PeterShor The question is the one in the second paragraph. The first paragraph is just my guess of the interprectation of IPA which I assume is correct or the question becomes a bit pointless.
    – skyking
    May 16, 2023 at 18:14

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It is optional. Although it is possible to distinguish [əl əm ən əɹ] (sequences composed of a vowel followed by a consonant) from [l̩ m̩ n̩ ɹ̩] (syllabic consonants) from a phonetic point of view, the difference between these is generally not important for distinguishing the meaning of English words. So you don't have to worry about the difference for the sake of being understood.

Some speakers, such as the linguist John Wells, do find the acoustic difference noticeable and have discussed patterns for when they tend to use syllabic consonants vs. schwa + consonant sequences. Here are a couple of blog posts on the topic by Wells:

In the first of these, Wells says

Syllabic consonants are never categorically required in English. There is always an alternative pronunciation available, with ə and a nonsyllabic consonant.

To me, the difference is not salient and so I think I would find it hard even to notice whether someone used one vs. the other. I think there may be some differences between dialects.

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  • An interesting comment by John Wells on the latter post: "Pete - please consult standard textbooks. Yes, in -dl- the d has lateral release, and in -dn- the d has nasal release. But the type of release has nothing to do with whether or not the sonorant is syllabic."
    – alphabet
    May 17, 2023 at 18:01

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