118: The prefix re-

long e, short i, short e, and schwa: all pronunciations of re-


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 118th episode.

I know I've talked a lot about suffixes during these podcasts, but I've spent little time on prefixes. When I'm teaching, I often spend time telling students to stop using the long e sound (long e) in the prefix re-. However, I recently learned that there are times when the long e is appropriate.

Before I begin, I consider this an advanced topic, since we need to understand a lot of individual sounds and pronunciation concepts to really be able to understand this episode. If you're new to this podcast, you may want to begin with some earlier episodes to prepare for this one.

Let's begin.

When you learned the re- prefix, your teacher almost certainly pronounced it with a long e (re). That is how it's pronounced in isolation, when it isn't attached to a word. Then, like most things that were new to you, your teacher stressed it. However, you probably were never told you that you can't assume that words beginning in r+e should actually be pronounced (re).

I'm going to try to make this complicated topic the least burdensome as possible for you. Here's the quick summary: the re- prefix can be pronounced with the long e, short i, short e, or schwa. Sometimes you have options, sometimes it's more straightforward.

Let's not forget how to pronounce the long e, short i, short e, and schwa. During the long e sound, the front of the tongue is very close to the back of the tooth ridge. Our tongue is higher in our mouth during this sound than any other vowel sound. The long e sounds like (long e).

The short i is produced with the front of the tongue a little lower than the long e. It sounds like (short i).

To produce the short e, the front of the tongue is lowered a bit more than the short i. It sounds like (short e).

In American English, schwa is usually pronounced similar to a short u sound (short u). To produce the short u, the tongue is lowered once again. The body of the tongue is relaxed, and set low in the mouth. It sounds like (short u).

So, I can compare the four sounds by starting with my tongue high, then lowering it, then lowering it some more, and lowering it yet again. Long e, short i, short e, and short u for schwa (long e, short i, short e, short u)

Repeat those sounds after me:

(long e, short i, short e, short u)

The information I'm going to share today is coming from the John Wells's Phonetic Blog. It's one of my very favorite blogs, and one that I have learned immense amounts of information from. It's not very ESL student friendly, though. It's meant more for teachers and linguists. If you feel up for a challenge, check it out. Again, it's called the John Wells's Phonetic Blog, and I'll link to it from this episode's transcripts.

If you check out Dr. Wells's original post, I want you to be aware that I'm also using the second edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary IPA transcriptons for my examples today, since those match the IPA system we use on Pronuncian.

Since Dr. Wells is also the the author of the Longman Pronunciation DIctionary, I think I'm safe combining his transcription systems for clarity in this podcast.

Dr. Wells lists four major patterns for the pronunciation of the re- prefix.

First, the re- prefix is pronounced with a long e sound when the re- means again. These are the words in which we can easily identify the root word.

For instance, it is obvious that to reprint something means to print it again. Likewise, rewrite means to write again, and to reread something means to read it again. I said all of those re- words using the long e sound (long e).

Listen closely for the long e (long e) sound, and repeat these words after me:


The second pattern Dr. Wells gives is for words with a more vague meaning of the re- prefix.

Let's use the words relate and regret as examples. The word relate does not mean to late again. Nor are you gretting again if you regret something. This abstraction is the clue that we will not use the long e pronunciation during the re- prefix.

What sounds do we use?

Dr. Wells says we can use a short i or schwa in these kinds of words, and it doesn't matter which one we choose. So our re- prefix will be pronounced as (r+short i), (r+schwa). I tend to use the short i pronunciation.

Listen, and repeat these words after me:


Now on to the third and fourth patterns. These involve our friend, syllable stress. If the re- prefix is stressed and has a vague meaning, we will use a short e sound (short e). An example is the word relative. The first syllable of the word relative is stressed, and it is pronounced as (re-) with a short e sound (re). Examples that Dr. Wells provides include:

relative recognize

The same short e sound is used if the prefix has a secondary stress. This is common when the syllable two syllables away has the main stress of the word. For instance, the word recommend. The third syllable is stressed, recommend, so we can expect a secondary stress on the first syllable, recommend. Other examples that follow this pattern include:


Dr. Wells then goes on to list words that do not follow the patterns above, but I'm going to leave those out today. This episode is already complicated enough.

If you want to learn more about the sounds I talked about today or find the link to the John Wells's Phonetic Blog, visit our podcast transcripts page at www.pronuncian.com/podcast. Of course, this topic is also open for discussion on our forums, which you can find at www.pronuncian.com/forums.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.