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“We’ve adjusted for lots of other things that we know effect children’s development and IQ.”

LOE has the “effect” in its transcript above. But the audio from the same page has the sound of /əˈfɛkt/ (2:22~2:28). Then is this the schwa pronunciation of /ɪˈfɛkt/ ? If yes, can’t we tell which word is which just by sound?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

In principle, yes. But it will only be easy if the words are spoken in isolation with an effortful clarity.

But in natural speech there is a high degree of variation in vowel pronunciation: both random variation and systematic variation between speakers and linguistic contexts. You might be able to settle the question you are posing conclusively if you already had a large corpus of transcribed speech for the speaker in question, so that we could assign a probability of the word being effect vs. affect.

In practice, this is completely impractical, and the thing to do is assume that the speaker is using the prescribed form here, affect. But for what its worth, I am hearing the speaker say [əˈfɛkt], which is how I pronounce affect. I would have expected a higher vowel, but still centralized (i.e.,
[ɨˈfɛkt]) if she was saying effect.

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I don't think that pronunciation will tell you which word the speaker meant. After all, innumerable American speakers pronounce marry, merry, and Mary the same, just as they pronounce pin and pen the same and affect and effect the same.

In the sentence you quote, context tells us that it has to be affect (influence) and not effect (cause or determine).

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In my (Southern UK) speech, I often (read, usually) use a schwa for affect.

But I pronounce effect as "if-fect" (rarely, "ef-fect", for emphasis/clarity), never with a schwa unless I'm not thinking fast enough to know which one I meant to say.

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