Do you ever think to yourself — Natural English vowel pronunciation is impossibleǃ Well, fear not, because I am going to break down some of the methods to the madness when it comes to English spelling in our vowel spelling series.
In this post I will teach you the various but systematic ways that we pronounce MOST words that are spelled with the letter “e” in English
Two disclaimers that I have to makeǃ
- This is going to focus on Standard American pronunciation, though there’s not as much variation for the letter “e” among different English accents as there is for other letters, like “a” and “o”
- These are PATTERNS, not RULES. There will always be exceptions, and it’s always best to focus on how English sounds first, then spelling second rather than vice versa. I think focusing on sounds over spelling will result in less frustration with English pronunciation overall.
/iː/ is the sound we make when we say the letter name “e” in the alphabet. It is a high, front vowel.
Try saying /iː/ 3 times.
Now, the question is, when do we know to pronounce the letter “e” as /iː/?
1. Silent/magic “e”:
An important thing to remember about the letter “e” is what is called “magic” or “silent” e. I will be mentioning this in all of my vowel letter videos because this magic “e” at the ends of words is SILENT, but is very important in telling us that the vowel earlier in the word is the long pronunciation.
- Another way to remember this is that it is typically the same pronunciation as the letter’s name, meaning that for the letter “a” its long pronunciation is /eɪ/ and for the letter “e” it’s long pronunciation is the high front vowel /iː/.
- So for long “a” with a magic “e” at the end, it forms words like “state” and “game”
- For long “e” with a magic “e” at the end, it forms words like “scene” /siːn/ “extreme” /ɛk.stɹiːm/ and “evening” /iːv.nɪŋ/
- Let’s do some more examples of the letter “e” with magic “e” at the end together
- Chinese /tʃaɪ.niːz/
- complete /kəm.pliːt/
- these /ðiːz/
- athlete /æθ.liːt/
2. Stressed, open syllables –
Another pattern, is that when the “e” is in a stressed, open syllable, it can OFTEN be pronounced as /iː/. Remember, pattern, not rule, because there are plenty of words that are spelled with the letter “e”, are in a stressed syllable, but are NOT pronounced /iː/. But let’s go through some examples of words that do have a stressed open, long “e” /iː/ sound
What do I mean by stressed open syllable? A stressed syllable is a syllable that gets the most emphasis on a given word. Stress is an important aspect of English.
When I say “open syllables”, I’m referring to whether the syllable ends in a vowel or not. An open syllable ends in a vowel sound, whereas a closed syllable ends in a consonant sound.
With the letter “e”, a stressed open syllable is almost often pronounced as a long /iː/ sound. Let’s go through some examplesː
- Short words with no other vowels ending in “e”
- me /miː/
- he /hiː/
- she /ʃiː/
- be /biː/
- we /wiː/
- me /miː/
- Stressed open syllables in multisyllabic words –
- A.’ppre.ciate /ə.’pɹiː.ʃiː.eɪt/
- ‘e.ven /iː.vɪn/
- ‘fe.male /’fiː.mel/
- ‘pre.vi.ous /’pɹiː.viː.ɪs/
- ‘re.cent /’ɹiː.sɪnt/
3. Many foreign words ending in “e”
Many words that were loaned from other languages and end in the letter “e” are often pronounced in English with a long /iː/ sound. This is most commonly found in words of Greek origin
Try these words with me, with the word-final “e” being pronounced with a long /iː/ sound
- Apostrophe /ə.’pɑː.stɹə.fiː/
- catastrophe /kə.’tæs.tɹə.fiː/
- epitome /ə.’pɪt.ə.miː/
This happens with words from other languages too, including
- Spanish for words like guacamole /gwɑː.kə.mɔl.iː/
- Japanese with karaoke /keɚ.ɹiː.oʊ.kiː/ and karate /kə.ɹɑː.ɾiː/
- Native American languages with the famous national park in California — Yosemite /joʊ.sɛm.ə.ɾiː/
4. “ee”, “ea”, “ei” after “c”
Finally, words that are spelled with the letter combination of “ee” and “ea” are often also used to make the long /iː/ pronunciation. We often use these two different spellings to distinguish the meaning of words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently Say these examples with me
- “ee” / “ea” –
- meet (like in “meet with friends”) / meat (like in, “do you eat meat?”)
- Feet (like your two feet), vs. feat (an accomplishment)
- Peek (to take a quick look at something) vs. peak (the top of a mountain
- Exceptions –
- been is often reduced to /bɪn/, while “bean” is always pronounced as it’s spelled /biːn/
- Head, breakfast, ready, health, and many, many more are pronounced as /ɛ/, not /iː/
- Exceptions –
- “ei” – if you’ve ever heard the expression “i before e except after c”, this is referring to pronunciations of words like
- Other words that follow this “ei” spelling as /iː/ include
The other major pronunciation of the letter “e” is what’s referred to as short “e” and pronounced as /ɛ/. This is the “e” sound you have in words like “get”, “when”, and “bed”. This is a mid front vowel, meaning that your jaw is mid height and the focus of the sound is in the front of the mouth. Try saying that sound three times. So, how do we know when to pronounce the letter “e” as this short /ɛ/ sound?
“e” + final consonant/double consonant –
The most common example of pronouncing “e” as /ɛ/ is when you have a single “e” followed by a consonant at the end of a word. If you adjust the word “meet” and take away one of the “e”s, it becomes “met” /mɛt/. Let’s practice some more examples of thisǃ
Many stressed closed syllables
– These are cases where the letter “e” is in a stressed syllable that is closed or ends in a consonant. Listen closely to where the syllable ends in the following words
- Ben.e.fit bɛn.ə.fɪt
- de.vel.op.ment də.vɛl.əp.mɪnt
- pres.i.dent pɹɛz.ə.dɪnt
This is a smaller group of words but can be good to know. There’s no special spelling rule or pattern to help you here, you just have to memorize them.
- England /ɪŋ.glɪnd/
- English /ɪŋ.glɪʃ/
- pretty /pɹɪ.ɾiː/
Unstressed “e” = /ə/ or /ɪ/
In unstressed syllables, it is very common to reduce the vowel. To the English ear, this is such a subtle difference that many native speakers will disagree on whether it must be an /ə/, must be an /ɪ/, or can be used interchangeably. In fact, even dictionaries will sometimes transcribe words with a /ə/ while others with /ɪ/.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t stress too much about this, and using either one won’t make a huge difference. As long as you use one of the two, you are on the right track! For those of you, however, that are interested in the specific linguistics of it, I would say that the /ɪ/ pronunciation is MOST common before front consonant sounds like /t d s z n/, while other sounds are often with an /ə/ sound. Is this 100% consistent? — no, but it is somewhat of a pattern that many North American English speakers do without even realizing it. Try some of these out with me
- /ɪ/ – GENERALLY, I think most speakers say these words more often with an /ɪ/ rather than /ə/. Notice how the consonants /t d s z n/ after the /ɪ/ are made in the front of the mouth and not the back
- business /’bɪz.nɪs/
- chances /’tʃænt.sɪz/
- eleven /ə.’lɛv.ɪn/
- statement /’steɪt.mɪnt/
- accepted /ək.’sɛp.tɪd/
- defended /də.’fɛn.dɪd/
- /ə/ – GENERALLY, words that aren’t followed by /t d s z n/ can be pronounced with an /ə/
- Believe /bə.’liːv/
- problem /’prɑ.bləm/
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