E (grapheme)

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For a note on how AWE organizes its group of articles on vowels, basically by aspects of sound and of writing, see category:vowels.

E e

The letter e (upper case E) represents a vowel. It is used in writing as part of several combinations of letters to represent different letters. The sounds it represents are varied (and one of its common uses in writing is to modify the sounds of other vowels - the so-called silent '-e-'). Some of the variation comes between different varieties of spoken English, where, for example, the pronunciation of 'beat' (normally pronounced /biːt/) can in Irish accents rhyme with the RP 'date', 'late' (/beɪt). Historically, the poet Alexander Pope, like all in the eighteenth century, rhymed 'tea' with 'say', like the modern pronunciation of the [river] 'Tay' (/teɪ/). The remarks that follow are based on current (2011) RP usage - but see Transcribing English vowels for an account of some of the problems.

  • As a short vowel,
    • 'e' has the sound represented in AWE's implementation of the IPA as /É›/. It is to be heard in such words as 'get', 'hen', 'bed' and 'deck'. (You may also like to see a note on an eccentricity at ate (pronunciation).)
    • In unstressed syllables such as 'emit' and 'barrel', particularly in final position, '-e-' often represents a schwa (IPA: /É™/), as in 'thinker', 'Campbell' and 'quicken'.
    • In 'England' and 'English', as well as a few words like 'pretty', written '-e-' represents the sound of /ɪ/, usually written with an '-i-' in English. Some speakers use this sound in words like 'market' and 'biggest'; most do in the realization of the past tense '-ed' after '-t' or '-d', as in 'cited', 'haunted' and 'clouded', and the plural marker '-s' after a sibilant, such as 'cases', 'places' and 'dozes'.
  • If E is called a long vowel, it may fall into one of several branches.
    • The sound most commonly called long '-e-' by linguists(the sound represented in IPA as /iː/) is found in such English words as 'be' and 'he'. This may be spelled with a silent '-e-' after a consonant following an '-e-', as in here' and these'.
    • In words such as 'her' and 'certain' (usually, as in these examples, when it precedes an '-r-'), e represents IPA /ɜː/.
    • In some words adopted from foreign languages, the sound of '-e-' may have the continental value represented by /eː/ - for example, from French: 'cafe' (or 'café' with the French acute accent); from Italian, latte (English pronunciation]] 'lah-tay' IPA: /læ (or ɑː) te/and Julius Caesar's famous remark on conquering Brittania veni, [vidi, vici], whose first word is best pronounced 'VAIN-ee', IPA: /veː niː/. (It is unusual to hear native English speakers reproducing this 'foreign' sound as the original monophthong and there is a tendency for it to become a diphthong /eɪ/)
  • The use of digraphs including e is widely varied, and very inconsistent.
      • Consider the -ea- digraph. It may represent, as simple monophthongs,
        • the long e /iː/ (as above) in : 'eat', 'tea', sea', 'meat', and 'beat' and 'heath'; or
        • the short e /É›/: for example in 'breath', 'health', 'measure' and 'heather'.
        • In two words (and their derivatives), -ea- represents the /ɑː/ vowel: 'heart' and (etymologically unrelated) 'hearth'.
        • Sometimes -ea- represents /Éœ/ as in 'learn' and 'earn'.
      • -ea can represent several diphthongs:
        • in 'bear', 'pear' and 'swear', as well as the half of each of the doublets 'tear' and 'wear', it represents /ɛə/;
        • in 'ear', 'fear' and 'near' it represents /iÉ™/;
        • in four English words, -ea- represents the /eɪ/ sound: 'break, 'great', 'steak', and the archaic 'yea' (~ 'yes'). This is also seen in such Celtic names as Yeats and Shea, 'yates' and 'shay'.
      • Some speakers maintain a clear distinction between two separate vowels in such words as 'idea', 'real', 'theatre' and 'European', where others elide the two vowels into one glide, as in /iÉ™/ above.
In three pairs of homographs, '-ea-' gives problems to readers: read, lead and tear are all completely ambiguous. (Follow the links for guidance.)
    • Similarly, -ee- can represent:
      • most usually, the long -e- /iː/, as in 'see', 'meet' and 'feel';
      • much less frequently - and quite oddly, and confusingly - British RP speakers sometimes realize -ee- as the short -i-; 'been', for example, is often rendered as a homophone of 'bin', in American English as well as RP (IPA: /bɪn/); and 'breeches' is often given as 'britches' (/brɪtʃɪz/) by those with a sense of history and the traditional pronunciation; and the most common is 'coffee'.
      • When followed by '-r-', --ee- represents a [[centring diphthong /iːə/, as in 'beer' and 'cheer'.
      • In some words taken from other languages, -ee- has the sound of IPA /e/, as in French 'fiancee' and /'matinee (more properly 'fiancée' and 'matinée'); and German 'Beethoven' and 'See').
    • -ei- also has several values|:
      • the short e /É›/, as in 'heifer', 'Leicester' - and the British pronunciation of leisure, IPA: /ˈlÉ› Ê’É™r/;
      • the long -e- /iː/, as in 'receive', 'conceit' - and the North American pronunciation of leisure', IPA: /ˈliː Ê’É™r/;
      • the schwa in unstressed syllables such as those in 'foreign' and 'sovreign';
      • the diphthongal /eɪ/ as in 'eight', 'neighbour', 'reindeer', 'rein' and 'weigh';
      • -ei- can represent the diphthong /ai/, mostly in recognizably foreign words, such as the Germanic, e.g. 'Fahrenheit', 'eiderdown', 'Einstein' and 'gneiss', and Greek, e.g. 'kaleidoscope' and 'seismograph'; but also in more anciently English words such as 'height' and 'sleight'. Note the possible pronunciations of either and neither as '[n]EYE-the(r)' or '[n]EE-the]]' (/ˈ[n]aɪ ðər/.
    • -ey- can represent:
    • -eu- and its partner -ew- basically sound like 'you' (IPA: /juː/) in words like 'feud, 'neuter, 'jewel', 'ewe' and 'pewter'. American English and some British accents, this vowel sound is simplified to /uː/ after alveolar and dental consonants like '-n-' and '-t-', so that they may be mocked by writing deown their accent as 'Noo York' and 'toon' (for 'tune').
      • In words still recognizably foreign,
        • -eu-, particularly when with '-r', -eur (a French termination), has the vowel /Éœ/ of 'her', sometimes weakening to a schwa (/É™/, e.g. 'connoisseur', 'chauffeur', 'amateur' and 'voyeur';
        • when -eu- is combined with '-a-', as -eau- (another French termination), it has the sound of 'OH' (/əʊ/), e.g. 'Watteau', 'plateau', 'chat[eau' and 'bureau'; nut note 'bureaucracy', which (unlike 'bureaucrat') changes the vowel to the short '-o-' of IPA /É’/, 'byou-ROCK-ressy', IPA: /bjuː ˈrÉ’ krÉ™ sɪ/. 'Beautiful' and 'beauty' are exceptional, like the placename Beaulieu, in that the the first vowel is a simple 'you' (/ju:/).
        • in words from German, the sound is usually '-oy-', /ɔɪ/, e.g. 'Freud', 'Deutschmark', 'leutnant' and 'schadenfreude';
      • -ew- sometimes represents the /əʊ/ vowel, as in 'sew'. This was an older convention, occasionally to be seen in archaic writings of 'to show' (see Shew - shewn - shewed).
    • The combination -eo- is rare. Each word tends to be realized with its own pronunciation: 'geography' (and other words with this root) has two separate vowels, 'jee-OG-ruff-y' IPA: /dÊ’i ˈɒ græf ɪ/ (though some speakers realize it as JOG-ruff-y /ˈdÊ’É’ grÉ™ fɪ/), while 'people' has one, '-ee-', /iː/ - and 'jeopardy' and 'leiopard' have one, but a different one: /É›/. A third single vowel can be heard in 'yeoman ('YOH-man', /ˈjəʊ mÉ™n/), while 'leotard' has two, with a different first element from that of 'geography': 'LEE-oh-tard', /ˈliː əʊ tÉ‘rd/.
In principle, when -e- appears with another vowel, it can represent a separate vowel sound rather than a diphthong, as with the common prefixes pre- and re-. Where these may lead to a hesitation in a reader, it may be best to include as hyphen, as in 'pre-existing' and 're-act'. Follow the usage in your subject area: Drama students may prefer 're-act' to describe a second performance, while chemists normally talk of 'chemical reactions'. 'Create' and 'deity' both have two separate vowels, 'cri-ATE' (IPA: /krɪ ˈeɪt/) and 'DAY-it-y' (IPA: /ˈdeɪ ɪt ɪ/).
You may also want to see E (phoneme) or long vowel - short vowel.
Much of the information on this page has been taken from McArthur and Bell, 2004.