50 sounds that make English impossible to understand

Akshay Swaminathan
The Shadow
Published in
6 min readFeb 28, 2021

Most people think that native speakers are hard to understand because they speak fast. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. Natives do often speak fast, but they also speak with relaxed pronunciation.

Relaxed pronunciation is a language learner’s worst nightmare. It’s what makes English speakers pronounce “want to” as “wanna” and “have to” as “hafta”, and is especially common when speaking quickly and casually. Most language learners are never explicitly taught the rules of relaxed pronunciation, which can make understanding native speech nearly impossible. Imagine you’re learning English and someone said to you, “dijoo wanna goda the showda morrow?” Try looking up any one of those words in the dictionary — you won’t find them.

Today we’re going to go over 50 of the most common relaxed pronunciations in English, broken down into 8 groups, so that you can recognize them the next time you hear an unintelligible native speaker. Note that all of the pronunciations that we review here are American English pronunciations.

But first….

Why listening comprehension doesn’t just get better with exposure

Well, it can, but it will be a very long and slow process. Saying “My listening comprehension will just improve with time and exposure,” is like a musician saying “My ability to recognize notes and chords will just improve with time and exposure”. Any serious musician who heard that would respond by saying, “You mean you’ve never done ear training?”

In language learning, we put so little emphasis on ear training that most people don’t even know that it’s possible to do ear training for another language! Check out my article on audio dissection, one of the best exercises for ear training in a foreign language.

Learning about relaxed pronunciation is a very important for ear training, because by explicitly learning how words and sounds change, your brain will recognize them more easily the next time you encounter them.

Check out the videos at the end of the article to see some of these relaxed pronunciations in action and to test your skills!

1. The word “to”

The word “to” changes a lot when we speak quickly. First, the ending “oooo” sound changes to a “uh” or “ə” sound: to → tuh. So instead of saying “go to school”, we would say “go tuh school” (go to͞o school → go tə school). Here’s the crazy part. When we speak even faster, the “t” sound of “to” changes to a “d” sound. So “go to” becomes “go tuh” which becomes “go duh” or “goda”. I will use the –uh and –a endings interchangeably throughout this article to represent the “ə” sound. Here are some other common changes with the word “to”:

  • to → tuh (tə) → duh (də)
  • go to → go tuh → goda (godə)
  • how to → how tuh → howda
  • going to → going tuh → goingda → gunna
  • trying to → trying tuh → tryingda → tryinda → tryna
  • want to → wan-tuh → wanna
  • have to → have tuh → hafta
  • got to → got tuh → godda
  • used to → use to → use tuh
  • supposed to → suppose to → suppose tuh

2. The word “you”

The word “you” is so commonly used, and so is its relaxed pronunciation “yuh” or “ya” (yə). The important point is that the “o͞o” sound changes to a “ə” sound. Let’s look at some common examples:

  • you → ya (yə)
  • did you → did-jou → dijoo → dija (here, the final “d” of “did” and the “y” in “you” combine to make a “j” sound!)
  • do you → d’you → d’ya
  • got you → got-chu → got-cha (here, the final “t” of “got” and the “y” in “you” combine to make a “ch” sound!)
  • get you → get-chu → get-cha
  • get your → get-chur
  • don’t you → don’t-chu → don’t-cha
  • can’t you → can’t-chu → can’t-cha
  • won’t you → won’t-chu → won’t-cha
  • what are you → whadr you → whadr ya or what are you →what-chu → what-cha
  • what do you → wha-d’ya → what-chu → what-cha
  • you did → ya did → y’did

3. The word “of”

The first thing to understand is that the “f” in “of” doesn’t actually sound like an “f”, it sounds like a “v” → “əv”. When we speak quickly, the final “v” sound drops off, leaving the “ə” sound. Let’s look at some examples of this:

  • kind of → kin-uv → kinda (kində) → kina (kinə) (here, the “d” sound drops off completely)
  • a lot of → a lodduv → a lodda (here, the “t” at the end of “lot” changes into a “d”)
  • out of → ou-duv → ou-da (another change from “t” to the “d” sound)
  • sort of -> sor-duv → sorda

4. The word “have”

We just saw how the “v” sound at the end of “of” dropped off, leaving nothing but the “uh” sound. The same exact thing happens with the word “have”!

  • should have → should’ve → shoulduh
  • could have → could’ve → coulduh
  • would have → would’ve → woulduh

5. The word “are”

When we say the word “are” quickly, the sound of the “a” drops off and we’re left with nothing but the “r” sound, which often gets lumped with the preceding word.

  • you are → you’re
  • there are → there-r → there
  • what are → whad-r (another example of a final “t” changing to a “d” sound)

6. him/her/them

When we say these words quickly, the initial “h” or “th” sounds often drop off, and the remaining –im, -er, or –em sounds get lumped with the preceding word. One important note is that when we say “them” in a relaxed way, the pronunciation becomes “thəm”.

  • tell him → tellim
  • tell her → teller
  • tell them → tellum (telləm)
  • give him → givim
  • give her → giver
  • give them → givum
  • show him → showim
  • show her → show-er
  • show them → showum

7. Words starting with vowels

Words that start with vowels are tricky because the initial vowel sound can get lumped with the preceding word and make it difficult to distinguish between word boundaries.

  • not American → not-uh merican → nodda merican
  • what about -> whadda bout
  • get on → geddon
  • that is → thaddis
  • three o’clock → three-uh clock

8. Other relaxed pronunciations

  • for → fr (for you → fr-you)
  • or → r (this or that → this-r that)
  • wanted → wanned → wannid
  • because → cause → cuz
  • give me → gimmee
  • I don’t know → I duh know → I dunno
  • already → a(l)ready → ah-ready
  • alright → a(l)right → ah-right
  • come here → come-ere
  • Probably → probly → prolly

Putting it into action

Now that we’ve learned about many of the most common relaxed pronunciations in English, let’s listen to some native speakers and see how many we can identify. In the following two videos, I’ve listed some of the relaxed pronunciations that I noticed. See if you can hear the ones I’ve listed, and try to identify more — I definitely didn’t get all of them!

Interview with Obama

  • 0:26 — it’s kind of → it’s kinduv a → it’s kinduva → ts kinduva
  • 0:42 — you can be → youk’n be
  • 0:48 — you did a → y’did a
  • 0:56 — I have to say → I hafta say
  • 1:01 — I have got to tell you → I’ve gotta tell ya
  • 1:14 — there are → there’re → there
  • 1:18 — responding to like a → responding d’like a
  • 1:20 — we’re trying to → tryingda → tryinda
  • 1:23 — so that I’m → so thad-I’m → so thaddum
  • 1:25 — young people or something → young people-r something
  • 2:01 — a lot of the → a lodda the

My name is Akshay Swaminathan, and I’m interested in finding the most efficient ways to learn languages. Take a look at my website and YouTube channel for more language-related content.



Akshay Swaminathan
The Shadow

Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner