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I’ve seen pretty often in phonetic transcriptions for English speakers who weren’t familiar with the IPA the phoneme /e/ or /ɛ/ transcribed as ay:

Here "lejos" (/'le.xos/) is transcribed as lay-hoss1.

Here "te" and "menos" (/te/ and /'me.nos/) are transcribed as tay and may-nohs.

This seems to be a pretty common spelling for the sound ‘eh’, which I find really baffling since the spelling ‘ay’ is generally pronounced either as /eɪ/ or occasionally /aɪ/, but rarely is it pronounced as /e/ or /ɛ/. Consider:

  • /eɪ/: day, bay, may, play, away, always, bayonet.
  • /aɪ/: cayenne, Uruguay.

The only instance I can think of ay being pronounced as /ɛ/ is in says, which I consider a somewhat exceptional pronunciation.

So why is it that /e/ is generally transcribed as ‘ay’? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to transcribe it as ‘eh’?

Do native English speakers instinctively pronounce ‘eh’ when they read ‘ay’ in phonetic transcriptions? In other words, if some native English speaker who didn’t speak Spanish tries to pronounce ‘lejos’ using the ‘ley-hoss’ transcription, would they really pronounce /'le.xos/, or would they pronounce /'leɪ.xos/ instead?

1 For the sake of simplification, consider /h/ and /x/ the same phoneme

  • The Spanish vowel sounds for a, e, i, o, and u are "ah", "ay", "eee", "oh", and "oo". When I see a word which appears to be Spanish in origin I use those pronunciations. Others don't. They know the way to San Josie, but not to San Hosea. – Hot Licks Jan 3 '16 at 14:21
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  • My own feeling is that the writing-sound relationship in English is so flimsy, and variety in English pronunciation so great, that there's really no hope of communicating to Americans, by writing, the sound of a language with which we are unfamiliar. So we've compromised with a system special to transliteration, mainly for Americans generally familiar with the foreign language and its transliteration. – Chaim Jun 13 '18 at 13:26
  • For example the spelling 'bar mitzvah' is a standard English representation of a Hebrew expression. But when I'm saying that expression in a completely Hebrew sentence, I pronounce 'mitzvah' in a way that I would actually spell MEETS-va. Perhaps that latter spelling communicates to you the sounds that I make, and perhaps not; but the standard spelling is recognizable to many millions of English speakers who guess correctly what Hebrew words are intended, and that's no small potatoes. – Chaim Jun 13 '18 at 13:28
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When people don't know a language, they tend to hear the phonemes as ones from their own language. Americans who don't know Spanish and hear the word lejos hear it as /leɪhoʊs/ or /leɪhɔs/. So that's the way it gets spelled in phonetic respelling.

You may think /ɛ/ is closer to /e/ than /eɪ/, but native English speakers (me, for one) don't. In fact, [e] and [eɪ] are allophones in English (meaning they represent the same phoneme). There are Americans who say [let] (late) but [leɪd] (laid).

The vowel /ɛ/ shouldn't be spelled "ay", because there's a closer vowel in English: the one in red, which is usually transcribed in phonetic respelling as "e" or "eh".

  • Oh, that's interesting. So would you say that's the reason why English speakers pronounce loan-words ending with an 'eh' sound like cliché or per se as /klɪˈʃeɪ/ or /pɚːˈseɪ/ (that is, with an 'ay' sound)? – Yay Jan 3 '16 at 16:56
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    Yes. It's because that's what we hear. I was once asked by a German why we pronounced Bach as /bɑk/ and not /bɑf/, which was clearly a closer pronunciation. It's the same reason. (And at some point, /x/ and /f/ must have sounded similar in English, too, because laugh became laff and not lack when English lost the phoneme /x/.) – Peter Shor Jan 3 '16 at 17:07

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