Ordering food and drink in another country can be a harrowing experience. What if I don’t know what anything means? What if they don’t understand me? What if I order it ok, but then they ask me a question I don’t understand!? Luckily, there are usually a few things that are easy to order, in some countries. One example is a gin & tonic. In many languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, and Japanese, the drink is known as a gin tonic. Pretty convenient, if you’re abroad and want to order a drink without embarrassing yourself with any of that funny foreign pronunciation. But why don’t they go the whole hog, and say gin and tonic?
A couple of reasons. The first is that non-native speakers of English aren’t going to be too concerned with following the syntactical rules of English when naming drinks, just as we wouldn’t be too fussed about making such an (admittedly minor, in the grand scheme of things) error. A gin and tonic is so well-known as a cocktail, that you don’t really need the and for a bartender to make sense of it. They’re hardly going to serve you separate servings of gin and tonic, are they? And of course a non-English speaker may not even know that there “should” be an and between the two words.
The second main reason is the way we native speakers actually say gin and tonic. Say it to yourself now, without thinking about it. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably say something that could be written phonetically as ginnentonic. Even if you really wanted to pronounce the d in and, it’d just get swallowed by the similar sound of the t in tonic. Not that you’re pronouncing it wrong by the way. That’s the most natural way for most native speakers to say it. Think of how awkward and slow it would be to pronounce each word separately. This is because of a very important factor in English known as connected speech. This is basically what it sounds like: we run most words together when we speak, unless there’s no easy way to do so because of incompatible sounds. We don’t tend to notice this because we do it from when we begin to speak, and because we create a link between what we’re saying and what it looks like written down. So when we say ginnentonic, we picture gin and tonic in our minds, and conflate the two, not thinking about the gap between them.
A major aspect of connected speech is the use of weak forms. These are vowel sounds which are unstressed, and therefore become the common schwa sound (“uh”). This is precisely what happens to the a in gin and tonic. And the d? We link that with the t, as we do in most cases where a word beginning with t follows the word and. And we don’t really need the d to understand anyway, do we? It’s no wonder then, that most translations of gin and tonic drop the and. We barely pronounce it, so most non-native speakers barely hear it. Try saying it again. Even for a schwa, we still barely pronounce and at all. The phrase is basically three syllables. Now native English speakers will hear that schwa, largely because we know the phrase is gin and tonic, but a non-native speaker unused to weak vowel forms is probably going to hear something like ginnn tonic, and if you listen to a lot of non-native speakers say the name of the drink, you might notice that the n sound is quite long.
Mastering connected speech is therefore quite tricky for most English learners. A lot of people learn English to a high level, but still never really use connected speech. Which is why you might often meet people who speak English very clearly and distinctly, and are easy to understand. But even if you’re not consciously aware of it, your brain will notice that they’re not using connected speech, which will make it sound simpler to you. Connected speech, and out pronunciation in general, also leads to many of the most common errors in English for learners. Think about how you might say the following sentences:
I’ve visited this place many times.
I could’ve been killed!
In the first two, you can see how hard it is for learners to hear the ‘ve in I’ve and the ‘s in He’s, because of how we link them to the sounds of the words after them. Even if those words started with different letters, it’d still be tricky to hear them as we pronounce contractions very quickly. Think about how we pronounce I’d like to win the lottery. Many learners will hear I like to win the lottery, and therefore say I like… whenever they should say I’d like… But of course there’s a big difference between I’d like to win the lottery and I like to win the lottery, which would be a fantastic hobby .
So while I said earlier that you shouldn’t change the way you speak, if you know someone who’s learning English, or who isn’t quite proficient yet, it’s worth thinking about how you speak, slowing things down a little for them, and enunciating weak forms and hard-to-hear consonants clearly. It helps a lot. Though do make sure to still use correct grammatical forms. Saying things like I… GO… SUPERMARKET!! isn’t much help, as it helps to reinforce errors by making learners think what you’re saying is grammatically correct. And what you want to say is actually often not clear at all (Are you going to the supermarket now? Did you go yesterday? Do you go every day?)
Finally, you might have noticed that I didn’t mention the last example above: I could’ve died! This is because connected speech doesn’t only cause problems for learners of English. The contraction of have to ‘ve in past modals such as might’ve, could’ve, should’ve etc. has led many native speakers to think that these phrases are not contractions of might have, should have etc. Instead, people hear might of, could of, should of etc. Which of course is wrong. Understandable if, as in most cases, people hear English more than they read it, but still wrong. And though it’s not a problem in speech, writing something like that in a professional or academic situation isn’t going to look good. Now I’m not saying that we should start fully enunciating could have et al. Just that it can be useful to consider the gap between written and spoken English. Though I do recommend reading as much as possible too: for noticing correct spelling and grammar, but also for the sheer pleasure of it.