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For example, the pronunciation of "priv-" in the words privacy and private is different in British English. The former is pronounced as prɪv- whereas the latter as praɪv-. Yet, in the US, the pronunciation is the same.

Meanwhile, the word privilege is, so far as I know, pronounced the same in both British and American English (prɪv-).

There seems to be something very arbitrary in all this. But there must be an explanation. Any ideas?

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    The British English pronunciation (although you will find both) is an instance of what is called 'trisyllabic laxing'. Here's a question whose answer explains it pretty well. Why do we pronounce a long second vowel in “decide”, but a short second vowel in “decision”?. Words don't always behave (e.g. obese/obesity, pirate/piracy) and American English speakers have taken private off of their list that still apply this rule. See also linguistlist.org/ask-ling/… – Alan Munn Jul 13 '17 at 20:16
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    A similar example with variation between /ɪ/ for most British English speakers and /aɪ/ for most Americans is "dynasty", related to the disyllable "dynast". Somewhat similar also is "vitamin" – herisson Jul 13 '17 at 20:38
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    @PeterShor I'm not sure what that proves, since I note that Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary is an American publication (Boston 1828). All it is telling us is that the current American pronunciation dates from as early as that. I have also noted that a 16th-century spelling, per the OED, is prevyce. That sounds an awful lot like a modern British pronunciation. 1534 in J. Imrie et al. Burgh Court Bk. Selkirk (1960) 141 That he resaiffit never the bell cros..nouder in prevyce nor part. – WS2 Jul 19 '17 at 11:42
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    @WS2: You're right. John Walker, the author of the dictionary, lived in England his entire life. I didn't realize this copy was published in Boston. A London edition gives both pronunciations. – Peter Shor Jul 19 '17 at 12:06
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    Not to mention privado, privant, privateer, privateering, privateerism, privateersman, privately, privateness, privation, privatism, privatistic, privative, privatively, privativeness, privatization, privatize, privatized, privatizing, privet, privileged, privileging, privily, privity, or privy. Especially don’t mention privy. – tchrist Jul 19 '17 at 13:42
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The English language is full of inconsistencies, generally, and each of the variants (British vs American for example, or 19th century vs 21st century) may add further inconsistencies or remove them. In that sense, it is fundamentally quite arbitrary.

In each instance of this sort of thing one could probably uncover the history behind it, and that can be an interesting exercise (lots of which happens on this forum). But, my broad advice would be "Just accept it and get on with your life".

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    Such a broad answer is bound to be correct (and I certainly agree with it, not the least because you explicitly state my deep belief about English, which is just full of "inconsistencies", or in my words, full of "exceptions" to the rules). The problem with such answer however is that it pretty much applies to almost every question I have about English. And yet, I still would like to know a bit more of the why behind such inconsistencies or exceptions. So, although I upvoted the answer, I still don't think it answers my curiosity on this respect. – luchonacho Jul 24 '17 at 7:58

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