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In American English, the pronunciation of the words "experience", "expert", and "expertise" can be transcribed as /ɪkˈspɪr.i.əns/, /ˈɛk.spɚt/, /ˌɛk.spɚˈtiːz/ respectively. Can one identify a synchronic linguistic reason or a historical one for the different initial vowel in these words (/ɪ/ versus /ɛ/)? In both "experience" and "expertise", the initial vowel doesn't carry the primary stress, so it's not clear to me whether stress is relevant here.

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    That pronunciation of "experience" is one dialectical form. Some people pronounce it that way, while others are closer to "expert". And many people use both pronunciations, depending on context.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 14:32
  • @HotLicks I'd be interested in a reference to a dictionary or another source that gives a transcription with initial /ɛ/ for the word "experience". Additionally, does it work the other way around (that is, are there people who say /ˈɪk.spɚt/ for "expert")? If there are people who strictly maintain a difference with respect to the initial vowel, how can that be linguistically explained? Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 14:39
  • Kenyon and Knott gives both pronunciations for expert, but it's limited to American English. it's also almost a hundred years old. But initial stressed vowels like expert are always different from initial unstressed vowels like experience. English unstressed vowels centralize, shorten, and neutralize whenever they can. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 15:03
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    I am almost certain that I pronounce all three with same initial vowel sound.
    – Damila
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 1:06
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    Watching some YouTube videos, I see how a lot of Americans do in fact say /ɪkˈspɪr.i.əns/, I just never noticed before. Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 5:30

1 Answer 1

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This is a case of vowel reduction (see Wikipedia). In "expert," the initial syllable has primary stress. In "expertise," it has secondary stress. But in "experience," it is entirely unstressed, so (as often happens) the vowel in the syllable is reduced to /ɪ/.

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  • Thank you for the answer and link. Could you please help me identify other pairs of words where /ɪ/ functions as the unstressed counterpart of primarily stressed /ɛ/? Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 14:55
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    Dunno if "vowel reduction" happens with all words where initial would-be /ɛ/ is unstressed, but for me it certainly does with enclose, encase, enamel, enigma, enough,... Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 15:18
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    @FumbleFingers I guess the same process accounts for the difference in terms of the 1st syllable's vowel in the words "present (noun)" /ˈpɹɛzənt/ versus "present (verb)" /pɹɪˈzɛnt/, is that right? Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 16:01
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    I would think so, yes. And you should also bear in mind that in many contexts for many speakers, that unstressed initial vowel gets even further reduced to just a schwa. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 16:30

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