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Could you please confirm for me whether my understanding is correct about the pronunciation of the ending -est in superlative, for example: shortest, farthest, biggest,...

However, if in American English, -est is really pronounced as /ɪst/, how American people pronounce the words best? I have never heard anyone pronounces the word best as /bɪst/.

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  • In your first video, best is clearly pronounced.
    – Xanne
    May 1, 2022 at 9:17
  • @Xanne But it seems that the teacher in this video said "that is not how it's pronounced" youtube.com/watch?v=UfV5Tq3YMGc&t=48s , and she proposes to pronounce the ending -est as /ɪst/
    – NN2
    May 1, 2022 at 9:24
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    No—look again. She’s saying the est in biggest is not pronounced like the est in best. It’s de-emphasized and more like ist.
    – Xanne
    May 1, 2022 at 9:28
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    So it seems. Best, lest, guest, nest, all pretty close.
    – Xanne
    May 1, 2022 at 9:46
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    Best isn't b + est. It's its own word. Good and well (which best is now considered the superlative of—though, if I recall correctly, the etymology is more complicated than that) are irregularly inflected.
    – Nardog
    May 1, 2022 at 10:58

2 Answers 2

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In English, the letters est is generally pronounced /ɛst/ in a stressed syllable. It's only in unstressed syllables that it's reduced to /ɪst/ or /əst/, depending on the speaker's dialect (most often /ɪst/ in British English and /əst/ in American or Australian English).

So the words best, jest, test, vest, arrest, protest, invest, are all pronounced /ɛst/.

And the words shortest, biggest, earnest, forest are all pronounced /ɪst/ or /əst/.

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  • I see. Thank you for your clear answer!
    – NN2
    May 1, 2022 at 14:42
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The suffix -est is traditionally pronounced /ɪst/ in standard Southern British English, but it is being replaced by /əst/. See Lindsey (2019: 39–40).

North American English doesn't have the contrast between /ə/ and /ɪ/ in unstressed syllables to begin with (so that Lenin and Lennon are homophonous, and hammock and dynamic rhyme), while the merged vowel usually has a quality higher than [ə] when it neither begins nor ends a word, which is often represented as [ɨ] or [ɪ] (Flemming & Johnson 2007). The merged vowel is usually represented phonemically as /ə/, but before palato-alveolar and velar consonants (/ʃ, tʃ, dʒ, k, ɡ, ŋ/) and in prefixes like re-, de-, it is often represented as /ɪ/ (Wells 2000: xv).

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  • Thank you very much for your answer. It's very clear. I have a question, in the second Youtube video of my question ( youtube.com/watch?v=VXoiOzQCqxg&t=430s , Fatima's house is the biggest ), the teacher read many times (for example, at 7 minutes 10 seconds) /-ɛst/. Perhaps she has a different accent that is used somewhere in the world? Or perhaps indeed she said / ɪst/ or / əst/ but my ears cannot capture the sound yes and so I thought she said / ɛst/?
    – NN2
    May 1, 2022 at 11:08
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    The pronunciation of -est in the video sounds like [ɪ] to me. That doesn't necessarily mean it should be identified phonemically as /ɪ/ rather than as /ə/, since younger speakers of British English might lack the contrast, but no, it doesn't sound like /ɛ/.
    – Nardog
    May 1, 2022 at 11:30
  • Thank you very much for your answer!
    – NN2
    May 1, 2022 at 11:35
  • A speaker has the contrast between /ə/ and /ɪ/ in unstressed syllables exactly when they don't have the weak vowel merger. The Wikipedia article on this merger says that it is widespread in Australia, it is common in America, and is not present in RP. This means that there are a lot of Americans who don't have it. You are making the common mistake of assuming that all Americans speak the same. May 1, 2022 at 12:37
  • @PeterShor Flemming & Johnson say the "distinction is not made in the American accents that we are familiar with" (p. 95), and I'm not familiar with one either. Can you name one?
    – Nardog
    May 1, 2022 at 12:46

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