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I didn't have any doubts about this word, because as I could see it is pronounced in both British and American variants as [ˈinfəntrē] - as it written - and I heard it in modern military usage sounding like that, until I heard an American WWII song The Ballad of Rodger Young in performance of West Point Cadet Glee Club - and it occurred to me, that they definitely pronounce it like 'enfantry' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MEJM0cboDg#t=7 Then I searched some other variants of the song - and in the most of them the same pronunciation was used, although in some not. Then I have searched the Internet and have looked up in dictionaries, but nowhere this question was discussed. I think that maybe this is the variable pronunciation like insure/ensure, inquire/enquire, or dated, or dialectal, or specifically U.S. military, but still cannot find any arguments in favor of anything. Or is it just a personal accent of the singer and nothing interesting?

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I’m not as convinced they are saying [ˈɛɱfæntri] as you seem to be, but do please keep in mind that when spoken, the infantry is phonemically /ðiʔˈɪnfəntri/ — but that when sung, you cannot stop the glottis. So it all runs together. –  tchrist Jul 12 at 19:34
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Also, what do you mean “it is pronounced as it is written”? Nothing in English is. For example, where is the ‑chree you would expect to find in the written word if it were “pronounced the way it is spelled’? –  tchrist Jul 12 at 19:38
    
I've heard 'infantry' pronounced (especially as an attributive noun) with no stress. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 12 at 20:03
    
@EdwinAshworth I wonder how that would work, to have no stress in it at all. So for “an infantry commander” or “the commander of an infantry brigade”, are you saying that you’ve heard infantry in those uttered with no stress at all? Compare orange peeler with orange peeler, or baby food with baby food, or giant killer with giant killer. In the noun-adjunct cases, it receives normal stress, but in the adjectival cases, it does not. –  tchrist Jul 12 at 21:52
    
@tchrist I'm using this sense given by AHD: stress 2b. The emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word ... I hope you don't mind. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 12 at 23:01
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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Choral performances (as in the case of a glee club) are not good sources for verifying issues of pronunciation, because it is commonplace in choral performances to alter pronunciation of words for musical reasons. One of the substitutions commonly made is to replace an initial "i" sound as you cite. The reason is that the "i" sound in "infantry" is pronounced with a small opening of the mouth, and as a result doesn't carry well in some rooms, while the "e" sound is pronounced with a much larger opening of the voice, and has more power and carries better. The short "i" sound is also much harder for an ensemble to tune as precisely than a short "e" sound.

In the case of the word "infantry", if one happened to be were listening very closely to a live performance, from the back of a large room (and perhaps one without very good acoustic characteristics to begin with), and heard a performance with "infantry" pronounced in with a short "i", the sound of the ensemble would seem to fade a bit on the "in" syllable while it would not if the vowel sound was modified as you noticed.

By the way, my credentials on this are that I sang in a professional quality ensemble for a number of years, and the substitution of short "e" vowel for a short "i" was such a regular occurrence that it was noted when we were not to do it. Not all choral conductors will make this modification, and some will make it only in some circumstances, for example, a particular ensemble, or a performance in a particular room. I would also note that this is a bit of choral technique, and may not (need to) be used by solo voices.

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Your leading clause is important and accurate: “Choral performances are not good sources for verifying issues of pronunciation.” Many phonetic modifications are routinely applied when singing, especially in a choir. Furthermore, although West Point is in New York, many cadets are from the South or are speakers of AAVE (or both), and might therefore be subject to the notorious pin–pen merger, and this might require extra effort to get a unified sound out of a group with different habits. –  tchrist Jul 12 at 22:10
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The pronunciation [ˈinfəntrē] is the right one. But it can be heard as infantri in some accents because of the sound similarity between [ə] and [a].

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I think he is bothered that he thinks he is hearing the first vowel as ɛ instead of as ɪ. –  tchrist Jul 12 at 19:41
    
Yes, it is precisely the point about the beginning of the word, although I wasn't sure is that /ɛ/ or /ə/, but not the clear /ɪ/. –  K. Karavaj Jul 12 at 19:50
    
So you disagree with the experts at Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, who only accept this form: infantry noun ˈɪnfəntri [US] ; ˈɪnfəntri [UK] ? –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 12 at 23:41
    
No, of course, I don't think, that my knowledge of English is better than qualification of British linguists. I just wanted to know, why this particular example deviated from the standard pronunciation. –  K. Karavaj Jul 13 at 17:39
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