Pronunciation of the letter "e" at the beginning of a word

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niagaro

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Hi everybody,

I know that every word pronunciation should be studied by itself since English is full of exceptions but I also know there are general rules that apply.

The question is simple: I would like to know what's the rule about the pronunciation of the letter "e" at the beginning of words. Sometimes it is ɪ and sometimes it is ɛ .

For example: "Error" is pronounced "ˈerəʳ" and "erroneous" ɪˈrəʊnɪəs



Thank you in advance!


 

5jj

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Welcome to the forum, niagaro. :hi:

Unfortunately, there is no rule.
 

niagaro

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Thank you 5jj,

I understand.. so I need to study them all...

Thank you again
 

Tdol

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The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is one area where English does not do very well.
 

niagaro

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The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is one area where English does not do very well.

I know :D

Another doubt.. apart from the beginning of the word.. is there really no rule for the letter "e" pronunciation?


For example:

for words like: shortest (the "e" here is a ɪ ) vs smallest (the "e" here is a /e/ )

or tremendous (
trɪˈmɛndəs) vs tremendously (trəˈmendəslɪ)


It seems that every other letter has a certain rule but not the "e"..

Cheers!


EDIT1: Could it be that for example, when you transform the word in an adverb it changes the pronunciation from /I/ to /e/?

Another example: specific and specifically.. but it's full of similar examples


EDIT2: I have noticed that the "E" pronunciation sometimes changes depending on the the word, weather is a verb or not
 
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5jj

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for words like: shortest (the "e" here is a ɪ ) vs smallest (the "e" here is a /e/ )
In both words, both /ə/ (not /e/) and /ɪ/ are possible.

or tremendous (
trɪˈmɛndəs) vs tremendously (trəˈmendəslɪ)
The vowel in both words is the same. Both the LPD and the EPD give it as /ɪ/; my own feeling is that /ə/ is possible.

EDIT: Could it be that for example, when you transform the word in an adverb it changes the pronunciation from /I/ to /e/?
No.
5
 

niagaro

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Thank you again 5jj. Your answers are really clear but I have some more questions (if I can)

for words like: shortest (the "e" here is a ɪ ) vs smallest (the "e" here is a /e/ )
In both words, both /ə/ (not /e/) and /ɪ/ are possible.

Is this a general rule for the words ending in "-est"? is there a preference?
I got this pronunciation from howjsay.com (I know it should be better with a IPA transcription but I have not found it yet)


or tremendous (
trɪˈmɛndəs) vs tremendously (trəˈmendəslɪ)
The vowel in both words is the same. Both the LPD and the EPD give it as /ɪ/; my own feeling is that /ə/ is possible.

I have found this pronunciation on wordreference.com. Same pronunciation on Howjsay.com . The Longman and the Oxford dictionaries say to see the tremendous entry but I have not found that exact word pronunciation. Weird..

EDIT: Could it be that for example, when you transform the word in an adverb it changes the pronunciation from /I/ to /e/?
No.

Ok, the fact is that I have been founding lots of words that seem to follow this rule..


Thank you again!
 

5jj

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niagoro, you are just going to have to accept that there is no rule here.

The unstressed vowel in all the words you have noted does not have one prescribed 'official' pronunciation within any single variety of English, and certainly not across the range of world Englishes. In BrE and AmE this syllable is generally pronounced from somewhere in the /ɪ/ range (IPA centralised [ɪ]/[e]/[[FONT=&quot]ɛ[/FONT]]) to somewhere in the [FONT=&quot]/ɘ/ range (IPA [/FONT][FONT=&quot][/FONT][FONT=&quot][ɘ]/[ɐ]). Lexicographers do their best to give as close an approximation as possible to the sound(s) they feel[/FONT][FONT=&quot][/FONT] are most commonly accepted, using phonological symbols, which themselves represent a range of sounds, as I have shown.
 

niagaro

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niagoro, you are just going to have to accept that there is no rule here.

The unstressed vowel in all the words you have noted does not have one prescribed 'official' pronunciation within any single variety of English, and certainly not across the range of world Englishes. In BrE and AmE this syllable is generally pronounced from somewhere in the /ɪ/ range (IPA centralised [ɪ]/[e]/[ɛ]) to somewhere in the /ɘ/ range (IPA [ɘ]/[ɐ]). Lexicographers do their best to give as close an approximation as possible to the sound(s) they feel are most commonly accepted, using phonological symbols, which themselves represent a range of sounds, as I have shown.

Thanks for the explanation, now it's clearer. I just felt there was a link and in these cases I get sometimes stubborn.
It's just me. I hope I didn't sound rude.

Thank you again. I had this doubt from a long time.
 

raindoctor

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There are some dominant patterns. Even anomalies to such patterns can be explained if you study the history of English spelling and historical phonology. For vowel graphemes, you need to figure out whether they were long or short. If they were long, how the great vowel shift (GVS) affected. If they were short, you can ask why they became short: for instance, historic trisyllabic laxing and precluster shortneing can explain many. In some case, homorganic lengthening ruled out precluster shortening. Before < r >, the vowel quality itself changes: you can study the history of post-vocalic /r/ on wiki.

For < e >, the possibilities are these:

/ɪ/ and/ə/: unstressed
/ɛ/: stressed, historically short; unstressed (or secondary stressed), short/lax vowel.
/i/: stressed, historically long, then GVS

Vowel digraphs were historically long vowels; then, apply GVS. Some digraphs were due to scribal practices: for instance, avoiding contiguous stroke letters with parallel slants.

Wikipedia is a good resource for GVS. Chistopher Upward's The history of English spelling, David Crystal's Spell it out is also a product of the former book. Study historical phonological processes like trisyllabic laxing, open syllable lengthening, homorganic lengthening, precluster shortening, CiV laxing, sibilant softening. Wiki is also also helpful on these topics. For more systematic treatment of historical phonology, check Charles-James Bailey's Grundzuge der englischen phonetologie allgemeine systematic, which is a condensed version of his English phonetic transcription by SIL.

Many historical processes are documented in Chomsky and Halle's Sound pattern of English.

You can find notes on orthography, esp x to xii here. He does not discuss about homorganic lengthening to explain anomalies (long vowels) in words like child, wild, etc.
http://seas3.elte.hu/foundations/schedule.html
 

5jj

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. Even anomalies to such patterns can be explained if you study the history of English spelling and historical phonology. ... etc
For 99% of learners of English it is going to be simpler and more relevant simply to learn how each individual word containing the letter 'e' is pronounced in modern English.
 

niagaro

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@raindoctor

Thank you for your explanations!

I will look into it!

@5jj

I think I am in that 1% ahah

I think that if there was a rule it would be much better since it's enough to know the few exceptions :)
 
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