86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”

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There are some useful rules for pronouncing the letter “e” like short “i”, and for choosing the correct pronunciation of “i”

VARIABILITY OF VOWEL LETTER PRONUNCIATIONS

Correctly pronouncing vowel letters is a well-known problem in English. A previous post (29. Illogical Vowel Spellings) explains that one reason is the existence in English of an unusually large number of vowel sounds (around 20), with only 5 official vowel letters in the alphabet to represent them (a, e , i, o, u), so that each letter has more than one way of being pronounced. Quite often, the right pronunciation can be discovered from clues like whether or not “e” is written at the end of a word (compare the “a” in hat and hate), but there are still numerous “illogical” spellings, such as “ough” pronounced differently each time in though, through, thought, enough and plough.

The letters “e” and “i” contribute their fair share of illogical pronunciations (see 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings), but even their more normal uses seem able to cause problems for speakers whose mother tongue is not English. In this post I wish to consider some less-appreciated normal pronunciations of these two letters, and also to touch on some that are not so normal.

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PROBLEMS WITH THE NORMAL PRONUNCIATION OF “e”

Some normal pronunciations of “e” are not very problematic. Of these, the best-known is probably the short one in words like end and lesson. Others are created by combining “e” with certain other letters, such as another “-e”, as in meet, or an “a”, as in beam, or a consonant like “-r” or “-w”, as in her and few (see 155. Silent Consonants).

Slightly more problematic, but still not the focus here, is the /Ə/ sound of the. The troublesome normal “e” pronunciations that I wish to concentrate on are /ı/ and /i:/ in words like response and ether.

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1. Pronouncing “e” as /ı/

Some common places where “e” is often pronounced the same as the “i” in ship are (a) word-final -es and -ed that are syllables by themselves, e.g. reaches, judges, houses, sorted, eroded; (b) -est in superlative adjectives, e.g. quickest, hardest; and (c) the first syllable of words like response and deceive. Many learners of English wrongly choose the /e/ pronunciation in all of these situations. I wish to say more about the third of them.

Two conditions must be met for pronouncing “e” as /ı/ in the first syllable of a multi-syllable word. Firstly, the syllable must be unstressed, i.e. not the most strongly pronounced syllable in the word (see 125. Stress and Emphasis). If the syllable is stressed, “e” is generally pronounced /e/ or /i:/. Secondly, the “e” must not accompany a pronunciation-changing letter like “a” or “r” (as in per-form, where the pronunciation is /Ə/).

Here are some examples of words with an unstressed first “e” needing to be pronounced /ı/. Most are of Latin origin with first syllables derived from Latin prepositions (see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling).

be-neath, be-side, de-spise, de-spite, de-tect, de-fer, e-ject, e-lated, me-ander, pre-clude, pre-tend, re-ceipt, re-main, re-spond, re-view, se-cure, se-duce

Unfortunately, there are a few exceptions too, for example pre-pos-i-tion and de-mo-li-tion, both of which have an unstressed first “e” pronounced /e/.

When the unstressed letter “e” is the very first letter, it may or may not make up all of its syllable. When it does, the /ı/ pronunciation is practically universal. Examples are e-galitarian, e-ject, e-laborate, e-lated, e-numerate, e-radicate, e-special, e-ternal, e-valuate, e-voke and e-volve. Examples of words where unstressed “e” starts a longer first syllable are en-act, en-hance, en-thusiastic, ex-amine and ex-ample. In words like this, the “e” can usually be pronounced /e/ as well as /ı/.

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2. Pronouncing “e” as /i:/

The longer /i:/ sound is usually spelt “ee”, “ea” or “ie/ei” (e.g. teeth, treat, piece). However, it is spelt with “e” alone when it ends the first syllable in a multi-syllable word and is stressed. Here are some examples:

de-cent, de-mon, de-tail (British Eng), de-tour (British Eng), de-viate, e-dict, e-mail, e-qual, e-ther, e-vil, fe-male, fre-quent, ge-nius, pre-paid, pre-view, re-alise, re-bate, re-name, re-sit, sce-nic, ste-reo, the-sis

In a few cases, a stressed first syllable needing to be pronounced /i:/ can also be unstressed and pronounced /ı/ to make a different word. Spellings which allow this are examples of “homographs” (see 6. Homonyms and Homographs). Examples are de-fect, re-call, re-ject, re-mit and re-search.

Unfortunately, there are also many words where “e” at the end of a stressed first syllable is pronounced /e/ instead of /i:/, such as be-vy, de-legate, de-licate, de-luge, de-monstrate, de-nier, de-pot, de-vil, e-very, le-vy, ne-cessary. Some words like this can again be given a different meaning by moving the stress and changing the first vowel sound to /ı/ as a result. Examples are de-sert (= “place with few plants” changing to “abandon”), pre-sent, record and refuse.

One other kind of place where “e” may be pronounced /i:/ is in words borrowed from languages that more routinely give this pronunciation to this letter. Borrowings from Greek, for example, can require “e” at the end of a word to be pronounced /i:/, as in epitom-e and hyperbol-e (see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary).

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THE NORMAL PRONUNCIATIONS OF “i”

The letter “i” is usually pronounced either /ı/ as in pill or /aı/ as in pile. Only in a few words, often borrowed from other languages, is it pronounced /i:/ (e.g. ski, bidet). There are a number of ways of deciding whether “i” should be pronounced /ı/ or /aı/, but they are not all completely reliable. Readers may find the following useful.

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1. When to say /ı/

A. When “i” is the last vowel of a word, and has only consonants after it. Examples are mix, drip, milk, thick, shrink, begin, vermin, insulin.

B. When “i” is followed by a double consonant (except “-rr”) or “-ck”, e.g. filling (not the same as filing!), pinned (cp pined), picks (not the same as peeks!), dinner, mission, beginning, hilly. One exception to this rule is frisson, a recent borrowing from French and hence still pronounced in the French way with /i:/ (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary); another is dis-sect, pronounced /daı-/.

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2. When to say /aı/

A. When “i” precedes “e” at the end of a one-syllable word, with or without a final “-s”: pie, lie, die, tie, flies, fries, plies, shies, skies, spies, tries.

B. When “i” precedes a single consonant and “e” at the end of a word, e.g. fine, mile, spice, expire, incline, invite, facile, finite (but not definite or infinite), expedite, erudite, supervise, dynamite. Important exceptions are urine, doctrine, imagine, intestine, clandestine and determine, which all have /ı/ (though derivatives ending in -al, such as doctrinal, have /aı/).

C. When “i” is followed by “gh”: nigh, high, sigh, thigh, alight, blight, bright, fight, flight, fright, light, might, night, plight, right, sight, slight, tight.

D. When “i” is followed by a consonant and “y” in a two-syllable word, e.g. briny, stripy, tiny, spiny, spiky, slimy, icy, ivy, wily (but not lily).

E. When “i” is at the centre of various word-beginnings of Latin or Greek origin: tri-, bi-, micro-, bio- and dia- (more about Latin and Greek can be read in the Guinlist posts 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling and 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary, and see also 146. Some Important Prefix Types). Relevant words are triangle, triumph, tripartite, tricycle, triennial, trial, tribunal (but not tribune or tribute); biped, bicycle, biennial, bisexual, binomial; microscope, microbe, microeconomic; biopic, biography, biology; diarrhoea, diagonal, dialogue, dial, diaspora, diaphragm, diabetes, diagnostic, diagram, diary. Note that multi- ends with /aı/ in American English and /ı/ in British English.

F. When “i” is the entire first syllable of a multi-syllable word: i-bex, i-con, i-cy, i-dea, i-dentify, i-dentity, i-dle, i-dol, i-on, i-rate, i-ron, i-sle, i-vory, i-vy (but not i-magine and i-rascible).

G. When “i” ends a stressed first syllable and has a consonant before it: bi-son, bi-ble, bri-dal, bri-dle, cli-mate, di-et, fi-nance, fi-bre, fi-ery, fi-nite, gi-ant, hi-fi, li-able, mi-graine, mi-nor, pri-mary, qui-et, si-lo, sti-fle, sti-pend, stri-ker, ti-ny, ti-tle, vi-a, vi-able, vi-tal (but not li-quid, li-quor, li-quorice, li-gature, li-tigate, vigour, bi-shop, bi-det).

H. When “i” precedes -nd or -ld at the end of a short word: kind, bind, (be)hind, find, (re)mind, blind, rind, mild, child, wild (but not wind = “blowing air” and rescind).

I. When “di” is the first of two syllables: di-gest, digress, di-late, di-rect, di-verse, di-vert, di-vulge (but not di-git, di-vide, di-vine).

J. When “i” is in a word of similar spelling and meaning to one that follows another /aı/ rule, e.g. financial, climatic, bridal, tidal, arrival, revival, survivor (but not criminal, definition, inclination, unity, wilderness, wisdom – see 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words).

Finally, it is worth noting the following /ai/ words, which seem to follow no rule, or to break a rule: pint (not the same as mint, hint, lint, etc), pi (not like ski), criterion, migrate, minute (=“very small”), dissect, and climb (cp limb). Readers who know of any others are welcome to mention them via the comment facility below.

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2 thoughts on “86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”

  1. Hi. I really like your blog, but I have to disagree with transcribing the words with /ı/ instead of the more appropriate and common vowel in unstressed syllables, the schwa /ə/. Although the pronunciation of this schwa in many dialects IS closer to the vowel /ı/, because of the so-called “Rosa’s-roses” merger (also called the reduced-vowel merger), for historical reasons the vowel contained in the “-ed” and “-es” suffixes should be considered a schwa /ə/ created from vowel reduction of the earlier full-vowel pronunciation /ɛ/. For unstressed prefixes with the letter “e”, three different pronunciations are acceptable. The “long e” /i:/ pronunciation, the “short e ” /ɛ/ pronunciation, or the schwa /ə/. For words that can either be nouns or verbs depending on which syllable is stressed (For example: reCORD /rə’kɔrd/ or /ri’kɔrd/ verb vs. RECord /’rɛkɚd/ or conFLICT /kən’flıkt// verb vs. CONflict /’kɔnflıkt/ noun), a general rule of thumb is if the prefix with the letter “e” is unstressed as in verbs, it can be pronounced as schwa /ə/.

    • Thanks for this informative technical appraisal. I admit to some simplification, especially in the area of dialectal variation, in the interests of presenting something that can be easily appreciated and remembered by speakers of other languages than English who want to improve their pronunciation. In encouraging the use of /ı/ instead of /ə/ in certain unstressed syllables, I am merely following what the great majority of ESL coursebooks say, at least regarding British English, perhaps on the basis of frequency of occurrence. Hopefully your contribution will be of especial value to learners who wish to go beyond such basics.

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