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Is it acceptable in formal American English to pronounce the first vowel in regret, realize, and return with /ɛ/ as in DRESS¹, as opposed to with /i/ as in FLEECE²?

  1. DRESS /ɛ/: the open-mid front unrounded vowel
  2. FLEECE /i:/ or /ɪ/: the close front unrounded vowel

Also, how were these words pronounced in Middle English?

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    Native English speakers pay relatively little attention to the exact nature of the vowel in unstressed syllables. So both /rɪˈɡrɛt/ and /riːˈɡrɛt/ are acceptable pronunciations, and if you say /rəˈɡrɛt/, you'll certainly also be understood. Commented Apr 27 at 14:52
  • Realize dates to 1610 so it wasn't pronounced in Middle English at all. re- is from French so was probably pronounced like that.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 27 at 14:59

3 Answers 3

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No, you can't pronounce these vowels as /ɛ/.That would sound completely alien to a native speaker. /i/ is the normal British pronunciation; in American English, /ə/ is also frequently heard in regret and return.

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  • /i/ is not a phoneme in English transcriptions. It's an innovation in the transcription system devised by John Wells which indicates that some speakers use FLEECE /i:/ and some speakers use KIT /ɪ/. In other words there's free variation in the vowels in these positions. Commented Apr 28 at 15:21
  • Oops. Should have written /'I/ is not a phoneme in SSBE (i.e.e Standard British) English transcriptions'. Commented Apr 28 at 17:27
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  • Lexical sets (e.g.: FLEECE, DRESS, KIT ...) might be provided ... but that only works for stressed vowels, and those are not stressed vowels, which means they're reduced, which means everyone will say them differently each time they say them and that no one will notice one from the other. That's how stress reduction works.                                                   – tchrist

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  • This isn't true of SSBE or other British Englishes, which still maintain a very clear distinction between, for example, Rosa's and roses. Other short vowels which can occur in unstressed positions such as FOOT, are still clearly distinguished from the others too!        – Araucaria
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    This isn't true of SSBE or other British Englishes, which still maintain a very clear distinction between, for example, Rosa's and roses. Other short vowels which can occur in unstressed positions such as FOOT, are still clearly distinguished from the others too! Commented Apr 28 at 15:24
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The 'E' in words like "return" and the first 'E' of "regret" sound more frequently than not, like the 'i' in "kit" or a schwa. But doubtlessly, there has to be a few accents in which the 'E' in those words is pronounced as 'ee'. And in most accents, it depends on if the word is a verb or noun. For example, as a verb, "research" is often pronounced as "ri-search", as a noun, it's pronounced " ree-search", but exceptions exist as well, like the word "record", which is pronounced as " ric-cord" or "ree-cord" when the word is used as a verb, and "wreck-ord" when it's a noun.

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