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I explained the pronunciation of the word chapel to my "English as second language" colleague, sounding the letter /a/ as in cat.

But he was pronouncing it like ch-ay-pel with the /a/ sound of gate and not cat.

When attempting to explain why, I noticed the word ape in chapel in the formulation of the a sound.

How do you explain for the word ape you use the /ay/ sound like gate and yet in the word chapel which contains ape you use the /a/ sound like cat?

Is it the consonant /l/ after the /e/ in the word chapel that changes it from the /ay/ sound in gate to the /a/ sound in cat?

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    Maybe you can say "ape" has a long "a" because of the "consonant-e" pattern, but in "chapel" it's broken down as "chap-el" and not "ch-ape-l".
    – Peter
    Dec 15, 2016 at 6:02
  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/40005/2396
    – WAF
    Dec 19, 2016 at 16:24

2 Answers 2

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Trying to find pronunciation rules for English orthography is an exercise in futility. Questions about this on English Language & Usage (ELU) usually get closed. See e.g. Are there rules of pronunciation for words in English?.

The tag wiki for pronunciation-vs-spelling on ELU) contains the poem "The Chaos" (1922) by the Dutch scholar Gerard Nolst Trenité that illustrates how hopeless this is. There are several readings of this poem in YouTube, e.g. this shortened version spoken in British English and this longer version (over 11 minutes!) read by Brumplum.

However, there is an ELU question specifically about the grapheme a.

Note also the following pronunciations:

  • chapel /ˈtʃæpəl/ does not rhyme with lapel /ləˈpɛl/, and neither of these words rhyme with label /ˈleɪbəl/. (So I see no reason to assume that the 'l' at the end of the word determines the pronunciation of the 'a');
  • but chapeless /tʃeɪpləs/ rhymes with shapeless /ʃeɪpləs/.

How did we (i.e. students of English linguistics) deal with "The Chaos" at university? Well, we were made to transcribe literally hundreds of words into International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). You'll need a good dictionary with IPA transcriptions, e.g. the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, or a pronunciation dictionary such as the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. (Note: these references focus primarily on British English, but American pronunciation is also mentioned.)

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  • +1 The two dictionaries you mentioned cover both British and American pronunciation.
    – michau
    Dec 15, 2016 at 21:36
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There is a "rule" I learned in second or third grade, though often pooh-poohed of late by "authorities":

A vowel in an "open" syllable (one that ends with the vowel) is "long", while a vowel in a "closed" syllable (one that ends with a consonant) is "short". However there's a special case for a word that ends in a consonant followed by a silent "e" (as in "ape") -- in that case the vowel (the "a") is "long". (This rule works pretty well for "a" sounds and "i" sounds, and not so well for "o" sounds.)

And, for those that have forgotten what was common knowledge 50 years ago, a long "a" sounds like the one in "late" or "gate" or "ape", while a short "a" sounds like the one in "cat" or "hat" or "chap".

And you know that the word "chapel" is (probably) not pronounced "chape-l" because English spelling is at least fairly regular about having syllables that contain at least one vowel in the standard spelling.

Even people who have never explicitly been taught these rules tend to learn them by osmosis over the decades, and so most experienced English speakers can usually approach a "normal" but unfamiliar word and do a pretty good job of pronouncing it, without having to consult a dictionary.

But, of course, in English there are no rules.

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  • "And you know that the word "chapel" is (probably) not pronounced "chape-l" because English spelling is at least fairly regular about having syllables that contain at least one vowel in the standard spelling." I don't think it's true that we can use this to infer the length of the vowel in "chapel". Consider the pronunciation of "paper", which is more or less "PAY-per", not "pap-er"; also label and Abel.
    – herisson
    Dec 18, 2016 at 22:50
  • @sumelic - So, what is the contradiction? The possible syllable splits of "chapel" are "cha-pel" and "chap-el". (Though I suppose, in retrospect, my observation of this detail didn't add much to the overall explanation.)
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2016 at 22:57
  • @sumelic - And, as I suppose this shows, it is probably true that a major difficulty in pronouncing an unfamiliar printed word is figuring out the syllable splits.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2016 at 22:58
  • Oh, I see. Right, it is ambiguous from just the spelling
    – herisson
    Dec 18, 2016 at 23:03

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