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I hear three different sounds for the letter e in precious, bean, and Peru.

Is there a rule that covers the different pronunciations that a written letter e can represent in speech?

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I am confused here. In summary I see 3 different sounds of 'e' in peru, precious, bean –  shampa Aug 4 '12 at 14:14
    
In precious the e is stressed. In Peru it is not, and thus reduced to a schwa. This happens to many vowels, and not just in English. In bean it's ea, not just e. Are you asking about the pronunciation of ea? –  RegDwigнt Aug 4 '12 at 14:16
    
ok! got it, Is there any rule to know when I should reduce 'e' to schwa? –  shampa Aug 4 '12 at 14:19
    
The English pronunciation of "Peru" is an approximation of the Spanish. It just happens that a Spanish <e> is perceived by English speakers as "short e". For other words, there's a more obvious difference between the "assimilated" and "foreign" pronunciations, for example, /ˈlaɪmə/ beans versus the city of /'limə/. –  Dan Aug 4 '12 at 18:18
    
@Dan If the city of Lima has a foreign pronunciation, what’s the excuse for Tina and Gina? Are we supposed to change those, too? –  tchrist Aug 4 '12 at 22:43
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2 Answers

The letter e in English commonly makes two different sounds:

The "long" e is [i] in IPA, and is found in words such as keep, bean, read, and compete. It's generally spelled with a digraph such as ee, ea, or eo, or is indicated by a final silent e in the word.

The "short" e is [ɛ] in IPA, and is found in words such as bet and left. It's generally spelled with a simple e followed by one or more consonants.

The names "long" and "short" for these sounds is completely conventional, as they don't have anything to do with vowel length in modern English.

The sound which appears to be giving you trouble is [ə], the schwa which appears in unstressed syllables. In English, any vowel can reduce to [ə] when it becomes unstressed, and therefore [ə] can be spelled by any vowel letter. If you are simply trying to find out how a written word is pronounced, this makes things rather easy, since any unstressed vowel is likely to be pronounced as [ə]. On the other hand, if you're trying to figure out how to spell a word whose pronunciation you know, this makes things very hard, since the [ə] sound could be spelled with any vowel.

There are exceptions to all of these rules, since English spelling is a disaster, but this should get you started. When in doubt, you should always consult a dictionary to see how a word is pronounced or spelled.

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Don’t forget the ey and ie (and perhaps ei) digraphs, which are less likely to get reduced even when unstressed. monkey, funnies. –  tchrist Aug 4 '12 at 15:54
    
Just two sounds? The OED gives it 15 not counting foreign words and digraphs. I do think they stretch things a bit, though. –  tchrist Aug 4 '12 at 18:21
    
@tchrist, I'm deliberately simplifying. There are lots of exceptions, as I said. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 4 '12 at 22:45
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The letter e has more possible sounds than any other letter in English. The best way to learn how it is said in any given word is to listen to native speakers and to look it up in a quality dictionary.

As for when it becomes schwa, you just have to know (learn by rote example) which unstressed syllables reduce to schwa and which ones do not. For example, the verb document has an unreduced, unstressed e, but the noun reduces it. See Stress and Vowel Reduction in English for more about the same, including that specific example.

This can sometimes vary between speakers; some speakers see Rosa’s [ˈɹoʊzəz] and roses [ˈɹoʊzᵻz] as a minimal pair, but others do not. In other instances, the degree of reduction may depend on how slowly and carefully, or quickly and casually, the word is said; rapid speech tends towards greater reduction than occurs with words carefully uttered in solution.

As the most frequently used letter in the English language, and the one that can produce the most distinct sounds depending on the word it is used in, the OED article on the letter e is especially, perhaps even extravagantly, long and detailed. I below present a tiny clipping from the much larger article. I’ve added some notes for sounds that a rhotic speaker would not generate, and which indeed under alternate analyses, do not even exist.

The sounds now expressed by E in standard English are the following:

  1. in be   biː
  2. ɪə in here   hɪə(r)
    [NB: Non-rhotic accents only; rhotic accents have [hiɹ]   ‑‑tchrist]
  3. ɛə in there   ðɛə(r)
    [NB: Non-rhotic accents only; rhotic accents have [ðɛɹ], [ðeɹ]  ‑‑tchrist]
  4. iː/ɪ in acme   ˈækmiː, ˈækmɪ
  5. ɛ in bed   bɛd
  6. ɜː in alert  əˈlɜːt
    [NB: Non-rhotic accents only; rhotic accents have [əˈlɜɹt], sometimes written [əˈlɝːt]   ‑‑tchrist]

    Exceptional sounds are

  7. in eh!
  8. ɪ in England, English
  9. ɑː occurring before r in clerk, sergeant, and in various proper names, as Berkeley, Hertford.

    In unaccented syllables it has the obscure sounds:

  10. in remain ˈrᵻˈmeɪn, added ˈædᵻd
  11. ə in moment, ˈmoʊmənt, father ˈfɑːðə(r)
    [NB: Non-rhotic accents only; rhotic accents write [ˈfɑðəɹ], [ˈfɑðɚ], [ˈfɑðɹ̩]   ‑‑tchrist]
  12. the mere voice-glide (ə) as in sadden ˈsæd(e)n

In foreign words not fully naturalized certain other sounds occur: the Fr. en occas. retains in Eng. use its two sounds of ɑ̃ and æ̃, as in ennui ɑ̃nyi, bon-chretien bɔ̃kretjæ̃; the Fr. unaccented e preserves the sound of ə in words like eau-de-vie o də vi; and the Fr. é that of e in a few words, as café kafe.

E is also the first element in many vowel-digraphs, most of which have more than one pronunciation.

It then goes on to detail eight such digraphs — ea, eau, ee, ei, eo, eu, ew, ey — and give multiple examples of each, since almost all of those can have multiple possible sounds.

Following that it explains how the situations where e is silent “are very numerous”, and details six situations in which this occurs. Before those, however, it states:

The rule may be laid down that (except in foreign words not fully naturalized as to form) a final e is never sounded when there is another vowel in the word.

One should read the entire entry, of which this is just an extremely brief and summarized excerpt, to get the more in-depth treatment.

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Eh? I pronounce both the verb and the noun document exactly the same. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 4 '12 at 15:38
    
@JSBձոգչ See the referenced article. It’s where I took the example from. –  tchrist Aug 4 '12 at 15:41
    
@tchrist: to confuse the OP even further, I reduce the e in the noun and not the verb, but not to a schwa ... I say documint. –  Peter Shor Aug 4 '12 at 15:42
    
@JSBձոգչ how I pronounce the verb form depends on how fast I'm talking. The noun is always with a schwa. –  Matt Эллен Aug 4 '12 at 17:50
    
@MattЭллен That’s exactly how it is for me, too. –  tchrist Aug 4 '12 at 18:05
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