Words beginning with e usually be pronounced as /e/ or /ɪ /, for example:

  • egg /eg/
  • effort /'efət/
  • explicit /ɪ k'splɪ sɪ t/

Very rarely, words are pronounced with /iː/, for example:

  • epoch /'i:pɔk/
  • ego /'i:ɡəu/

My question is in which situation, the word begin with e will be pronounced as /iː/?

  • It could also be a short i sound and the schwa sound. there are no rules, you have to check the dictionary each time.
    – David Haim
    Oct 17, 2018 at 8:58
  • Hi Ryan, I'm pretty sure I've seen something like this question on our sister site English Language Learners - it might be worth visiting (NB it's not just for learners, it has great explanations even for native speakers!). Try selecting "tags" on the main menu and searching for "pronunciation". :-) Oct 17, 2018 at 9:23
  • @Araucaria: Is there? I feel like several rules, none of them very good, are needed to fully explain the examples in the question. The role of stress is probably the simplest part to explain, but even that is fairly complicated since some American English speakers might use /ə/ or /ɛ/ instead of /ɪ/ in a word like excel.
    – herisson
    Oct 17, 2018 at 9:37
  • @Araucaria: I guess I may have been too pessimistic in my initial decision to ignore the "word-initial" part of the question. My first thought was that it wasn't really relevant to the phonology of English vowels, but I guess for historical reasons there might be some generalizations that can be made about word-initial E in particular. There still are a number of rules needed though to account for all the various pronunciations of initial E in words like edit, economy, express, epic, echo, ethics, ethos, ethane, effective...
    – herisson
    Oct 17, 2018 at 9:46
  • @sumelic But the Q's about when word-initial E is /i:/, not when it' any of the other more open vowels. I was way overtstating when I said rule there (I meant there are helpful and useful things to say). E.g. one example is that many of those words are from Greek - and as you say have word initial stress. There are also useful spelling rules which rule things out etc. Oct 17, 2018 at 9:47

2 Answers 2


There's no simple way to predict this. The letter E is one of the most problematic letters in the English spelling system. In fact, a fairly large number of words spelled with E can be pronounced with either /iː/ or /ɛ/, showing that even native speakers don't follow any single pattern for pronouncing words spelled with this letter. The word epoch is one such word: it in fact has the pronunciations /ˈɛpɒk/ and /ˈɛpək/ in addition to /ˈiːpɒk/.

There is also variation between /iː/ and /ɛ/ in words like economic and evolution (the pronunciation of evolution with /iː/ is more common in British English than in American English).

You can sort of explain some of these things, but not in any way that's really useful for predicting the pronunciation of unfamiliar words. For example, ego is the Latin word for "I", and the use of /iː/ in the first syllable is consistent with a traditional rule for English pronunciation saying that a vowel letter in a Latin word is pronounced "long" (like the letter-name) in a stressed open penultimate syllable (a second-to-last syllable that ends in a vowel—following Latin syllabification rules).

In violation of that rule, the first syllable of the word era (from Latin aera) is often pronounced with a "short E" sound in American English (or the corresponding R-colored vowel, anyway: many American English accents merge some or all of the "short E", "short A" and "long A" sounds before an R sound).

Of course, the pronunciation /iː/ is quite common for words that start with E when the vowel is part of a digraph EA or EE, as in each or eel, but I assume you aren't asking about words spelled with digraphs like this.

  • " even native speakers are uncertain about this part of English spelling/pronunciation" <-- No, we're not! There's just several ways to say them! :-) Oct 17, 2018 at 10:25
  • @Araucaria: Hmm. I guess I'm thinking partly of the situation of a native speaker who is encountering an unfamiliar vocabulary item for the first time in writing. It doesn't seem too implausible to me that some people might see the word epoch before hearing it.
    – herisson
    Oct 17, 2018 at 10:27
  • Last comment, one thing you can use (i.e. are stressedully say is that all of these words have word-initial stress. (are stressed on the E) Oct 17, 2018 at 10:28
  • Ah, I'd clarify that, because it could give the impression that there's a "right way" to say those words in which there's variation, :) Ciao! Oct 17, 2018 at 10:32
  • @Araucaria: I think though that some speakers might have /i(ː)/ in words like economy and ecology, and I don't know of any reason to say that these pronunciations have any stress on the initial syllable aside from the circular argument that they lack vowel reduction. (It's also known to occur, infrequently, even in certain words with double-consonant spellings such as effective--compare perhaps the pronunciation of dissection/dissect with a diphthong in the first syllable.) That's why I'm not sure whether I should say that /i(ː)/ should not be expected in unstressed syllables.
    – herisson
    Oct 17, 2018 at 10:32

There a several competing forces in operation with these words. One is etymology: words that come form Latin or Greek ae or oe forms might retain a long vowel sound reflecting that history. Another competing force is that people just see the letters and pronounce them how they would pronounce those letters in any other word (the speak as you read principle). A further force is that even amongst those who know and care about Latin or (ancient) Greek derivations the way Latin or (ancient )Greek is pronounced in (British) English has changed but some of the words retain pronunciation from a previous version of the English pronunciation of Latin or Greek. A good example would be the usual pronunciation of 'chemotherapy' which is quite different from the usual pronunciation of 'chemical' despite their obvious common origin.

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