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I want to know the reason for all the different pronunciations of the prefix en- in English words. For example, words like enable, enlarge and endure have the prefix pronounced as /ɪn/, at least according to wiktionary. On the other hand, the word endanger has it pronounced as /ən/. There are also some words that can apparently have it pronounced as both, such as entire. Additionally, there are words like enhance, engage and enjoy, which can have it pronounced as /ɛn/ as well.

I thought the pronunciation of the prefix might depend on the etymology of these words, but they all seem to be derived from French. Is there an underlying hidden rule for the different pronunciations or is the pronunciation simply arbitrary?

Note: I am aware that certain words have retained the French pronunciation with /ɑn/ or /ɒn/ in GA and RP, respectively, such as the word entrepreneur. However, such words are not that common and I'm not interested in them for the purposes of this question.

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    It doesn't; these words you cite all have their "en-" prefix pronounced in exactly the same way. Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 8:00
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    Wiktionary is an impressive resource, but you're always better looking at dictionaries produced by professional experts. Consulting multiple dictionaries is usually recommended, although you have to bear in mind that conventions vary a lot between dictionaries, so while it's good to compare the same word in multiple dictionaries, looking up different words can be confusing.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 12:15
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    the word endanger has it pronounced as /ən/ ??!! I don't buy that. The first vowel is always "en-" or "in-". Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 17:27
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    This is probably one of the least-suited examples to illustrate the abundance of inconsistent pronunciation in the English language ;-). Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 22:46
  • As far as I can tell I pronounce all the "en"s in the first paragraph in the same way.
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 8:29

2 Answers 2

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The pronunciations actually don't vary.

Wiktionary is a crowd-sourced site, which means different people can put in pronunciations from various dictionaries, without any requirement for consistency.

In Cambridge Dictionary, these all seem to be pronounced /ɪn/. In the American Heritage Dictionary, these all seem to be pronounced /ɛn/. I don't know where the /ən/ pronunciation comes from, but there may be a different dictionary that pronounces all them /ən/. These different sources seem to have resulted in a hodge-podge of pronunciations in Wiktionary.

These different pronunciations are associated with different dialects of English, and different speakers pronounce the en- prefix differently, but you can just choose one way of pronouncing it and use it consistently; you don't have to vary the pronunciation between words the way Wiktionary does; native speakers don't do this.

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    The only oddball exception I can think of is "envelope" (noun), which I've heard as both en-velope or on-velope.
    – Max
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 23:54
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    @Max: There are a number of originally French words where en can be pronounced on as in envelopeentrepreneur, entourage, ensemble, en route. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 0:35
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    En-passant! (new response just dropped) Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 0:50
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    Also en masse
    – oeter
    Commented Mar 25 at 8:23
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There is a whole slew of in/en... words that exist side by side as accepted spellings (inquire/enquire springs to mind.)

The originals are all French and contained a heavily nasal "en" sound, These words then were subjected to British regional attempts at pronunciation in a language that had no such [initial] sound.

(As an aside you will note that the /ŋ/ in sing and other -ing forms is equally variable in various regional accents.)

If I give the suggested pronunciations/spellings from the OED, you will see that the earlier (pre-18th century) were even more diverse.

Enable, v.

Pronunciation: Brit. /ᵻˈneɪbl/, /ɛˈneɪbl/, U.S. /ᵻˈneɪb(ə)l/, /ɛˈneɪb(ə)l/

Forms: Middle English–1500s enhable, enhabel, 1500s enhabile, inhable, inhabile, 1500s–1700s inable, Middle English– enable.

endure, v.

Pronunciation: Brit. /ᵻnˈdjʊə/, /ɛnˈdjʊə/, /ᵻnˈdʒʊə/, /ɛnˈdʒʊə/, /ᵻnˈdjɔː/, /ɛnˈdjɔː/, /ᵻnˈdʒɔː/, /ɛnˈdʒɔː/, U.S. /ᵻnˈd(j)ʊ(ə)r/, /ɛnˈd(j)ʊ(ə)r/

Forms: α. Middle English endeure, Middle English enduer, Middle English– endure; β. (Middle English induyr), Middle English–1700s indure, 1500s Scottish indwir.

Enlarge, v.

Pronunciation: /ᵻnˈlɑːdʒ/, /ɛnˈlɑːdʒ/, U.S. /ᵻnˈlɑrdʒ/, /ɛnˈlɑrdʒ/

Forms: Also Middle English enlargen, 1600s enlardge, 1500s–1700s inlarge.

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  • We Americans absolutely do not have the lax vowel of could, put, wool, bull in this word as the OED is pretending here. We have no lax vowels before R, ever. Americans have the same stressed vowel in endure as we have in do, pronounced as though it were either in or en (it’s an unstressed continuum whose precise reduction doesn’t matter) followed by the stressed word doer, as in someone who does things. That means it’s a tense /u/ as in who, goose, two — with or without a /j/ glide before it.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 1:59
  • @tchrist There is an alternative pronunciation for "endure" that rhymes with "fur," "sure," and "concur." Not sure how common it is, but it's the one I've always used. Maybe this is regional? This is definitely not the same vowel as "could" or "put" (the one in "fur" seems farther 'forward' than the one in 'put'?), but it is kind of similar. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 3:07
  • Enquire and inquire mean different things don't they? The former meaning to ask casually/generally and the latter meaning to ask formally. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 16:19
  • @ScottishTapWater - No. they are the same word.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 16:47
  • @Greybeard - No, they're not. dictionary.com/e/inquire-vs-enquire Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 16:49

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