In American English, in words ending with -age, -ate and -ace, the ‹a› correspond to /ɪ/ (short i). Examples:

image, village, damage
private, senate, separate
surface, preface, palace

(It should be noted that dictionaries do not always agree about the pronunciation, and some use /ə/ instead of /ɪ/ for some of the words).

In all of these words the last syllable is unstressed. In unstressed syllables vowels may be reduced to schwa or to a short vowel of a similar quality, like /i:/ to /ɪ/ and /u:/ to /ʊ/. But at the words above, the underlying vowel in the unstressed syllable is either /eɪ/ or /æ/, so it is unclear to me why the reduction is to /ɪ/.

  • I'm quite certain that I use only schwa there. I have never heard of something having an /ɪ/. – tchrist Nov 9 '12 at 0:17
  • 2
    Just curious, which dictionary uses /ɪ/ for all of these? – dainichi Nov 9 '12 at 1:38
  • @dainichi: American-Heritage and The New Oxford American dictionaries use /ɪ/ for most of them. – Bohoo Nov 9 '12 at 13:11
  • by the way, as a native US speaker, I say that vowel something like /ɛ/, /e̞/ or /æ/. My accent is from New Jersey – Charles Nov 9 '12 at 20:11

Why do you assume that the “underlying vowels” of these suffixes are /eɪ/ or /æ/? All of your example words are Old French or Latin in origin. In Middle English they would have been pronounced with [aː] or [a], which was later reduced to [ə].

The change from [ə] to [ɪ] has little to do with reduction, per se, but rather allophony—the sounds simply exchange in unstressed syllables for many speakers. From “Stress and vowel reduction in English”:

In some dialects of English there is a distinction between two vowel heights of reduced vowels: in addition to schwa, there is a distinct near-close central unrounded vowel [ɪ̈] (or equivalently [ɨ̞]). In the British phonetic tradition, the latter vowel is represented with the symbol /ɪ/, and in the American tradition /ɨ/. An example of a minimal pair contrasting these two reduced vowels is Rosa’s vs. roses: the a in Rosa’s is a schwa, while the e in roses (for speakers who make the distinction) is the near-close vowel.

Among speakers who make this distinction, the distributions of schwa and [ɪ̈] are quite variable, and in many cases the two are in free variation: the i in decimal, for example, may be pronounced with either sound.

This is true for all of your example words as well. Dialects where the sounds do occur in free variation are said to have the weak-vowel merger.

  • This doesn't explain why I pronounce all these words with [ɪ], but pronounce other words with [ə]. It's definitely not free variation in my dialect ... I generally agree with Merriam-Webster about whether the vowel in reduced syllables is [ɪ] or [ə], and I'm sure they're not making this distinctions arbitrarily. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '12 at 1:07
  • @PeterShor: funny, I just looked up the words on Merriam-Webster. And the only words prescribing [ɪ] (I think this is what their 'i' means) were "image" and "village", the rest were prescribing [ə]. So if you agree with this, you can't be pronouncing all with [ɪ]. – dainichi Nov 9 '12 at 1:32
  • @dainichi: damage, too. But you're right. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '12 at 1:44
  • I remembered incorrectly: it's not Merriam-Webster but American Heritage that I generally agree with about /ɪ/ versus /ə/. Consider pirate and parrot. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '12 at 1:50

I think it may be because the unreduced pronunciations of a (/æ/ and /eɪ/) are front vowels. For comparison, "a" sounds in unstressed open syllables have been reduced to the "happy" vowel /i/ for some speakers in certain words; e.g. the -day week words or -aism words like Judaism and archaism. (See the question Which English words feature reduction of diphthongs like /eɪ/ to /i/?)

Alternatively, the identity of the following consonant might be relevant. The sounds /dʒ/, /t/ and /s/ are all coronal, and I think there is a tendency for vowels to be more front when they are adjacent to coronal consonants than e.g. when they are adjacent to labial consonants. I don't know enough about phonetics and phonology to be sure about this, though.

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