In connected speech, neighboring segments may affect each other in various ways, so as to facilitate articulation. In the discussion of the realization of individual phonemes in the preceding chapters we have already looked at numerous examples of this type of interaction within words. Some of the main processes involved are assimilation, elision, and insertion. We speak of assimilation when a segment becomes more similar to a neighboring segment, of elision when a segment is left out, and of insertion when a segment is added. Since all three processes generally serve to save articulatory effort, they tend to be more common in casual styles and in rapid speech than in formal, deliberate styles.
Although they are here discussed under the heading of connected speech, this should not be taken to imply that these processes primarily affect segments situated at word boundaries. They are equally likely to occur within the word. The point, rather, is that they are less likely if a single word is pronounced in isolation, in what is called its citation form. This form of pronunciation is usually the only form given in (pronouncing) dictionaries. For example, the words statement, postcard, just and facts are transcribed – depending on the notation used in the dictionary one happens to consult – something like /ˈsteɪtmənt, ˈpoʊstkɑrd, d͡ʒʌst, fækts/, and that is also how one would expect them to be pronounced in isolation. However, in connected speech, the pronunciations /ˈsteɪpmənt, ˈpoʊskɑrd, d͡ʒəs, fæks/ are much more likely. Don’t be misled by the fact that native speakers are frequently inclined to dismiss assimilations as ‘slipshod’ or ‘not proper’. Such judgments are largely based on the erroneous assumption that words should be pronounced in conformity with the spelling. The fact of the matter is that the use of citation forms in connected speech will easily create an impression of hypercorrectness and unnaturalness in all but the most formal speech styles.
Turning to your role as a hearer, it is important to see that a knowledge of some of the main features of connected speech combined with adequate exposure to spontaneous speech will improve your listening comprehension. It may come as a surprise that native speakers use an utterance like /aɪˈkæn ˈænsər ðæt kwɛstʃən/ with two diametrically opposed meanings: (1) I can’t answer that question (i.e. I’m unable to do so) and (2) I can answer that question (i.e. ‘You may think you’ve got me there, but I am able to answer that question’. Yet it is ultimately no stranger than the kind of ambiguity found on the lexical level where words like bank and face have several distinct meanings.