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I hope that some of you might be able to quell this dilemma of mine. I would like to know the British pronunciation for the word "competent." Is it pronounced as:

"com--tent" or "com--tent" with the latter being pronounced similarly to how we pronounce "com-pe-ti-tion" with the "pe" being pronounced as "pə."

I ask this as this conundrum has been tormenting me for the last couple of days. How do we say it colloquially?

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  • translate.google.co.uk/#auto/en/competent Click the speaker icon.
    – TimR
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 23:53
  • I have indeed been referencing various dictionaries throughout the internet and have discovered that some people pronounce competent with an "i" while others pronounce it with an "e," which begs the question. In British English, can competent be pronounced with either an "i" or an "e?" For some reason, pronouncing it as "com-pi-tent" sounds a tad bit weird compared to "com-pə-tent." Is it a regional thing?
    – Avinash
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 23:58
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    /'kampətənt/ is the American pronunciation. Commented May 3, 2015 at 0:27
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    Not everyone in England pronounces the word the same way!
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 3, 2015 at 1:17
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    Reduced vowels vary greatly between dialects (and speakers). There are probably both British and American speakers who pronounce it both ways. Commented May 3, 2015 at 3:52

2 Answers 2

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In practice, there is very little difference between short i and schwa. You could imagine a spectrum of pronunciations of the vowel sound in that syllable. You can say it either way and people will understand you just fine.

To have a clear, understandable pronunciation, it is important to get the rhythm and the intonation right. Stressed syllables are more critical than unstressed ones. Therefore, this syllable is of relatively little importance.

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As other people have mentioned, there is much variation in the pronunciation of reduced vowels in English. In certain dialects, unstressed "/ɪ/" has fairly regularly merged into /ə/. This is called the "weak vowel merger".

However, for speakers without the weak vowel merger, my understanding is that both "competent" and "competition" could have /ɪ/. It seems to me that in accents without the weak vowel merger, the letter "e" tends to represent /ɪ/ in unstressed syllables, except for when it comes before a sonorant consonant like "r" or "l", or sometimes "n". The OED entries for competent and competition, which were first published 1891 and have not yet been fully updated, give the pronunciations as /ˈkɒmpɪtənt/ and /kɒmpɪˈtɪʃən/.

More recently updated OED entries, like the entry for genetic ("/dʒᵻˈnɛtɪk/") use a special symbol /ᵻ/ to represent a reduced vowel that can be pronounced as /ɪ/ or /ə/.

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