Spanish e

We normally assume that there is just one [e] in English, as there is in Spanish, so we tend to pronounce bed  and bird  with the same vowel, but this is wrong. To produce these vowels right, we have to learn to distinguish between two different English sounds, /e/ and /ɜː/. Then, with a couple of small changes, we’ll obtain another two phonemes which also resemble our e (/ə/ and /eə/).

Here is an example which includes the four sounds we identify as similar to the Spanish e.

 The first girl I met had red hair. /ðə/ /fɜːst/ /gɜːl/ /met/ /red/ /heə/

Now, let’s compare them one by one.

e Spanish and English [e] are similar but not the same. The main difference is that in English the [e] is produced with the mouth a bit more open and the lips a bit more spread, which gives it a different quality.

  • How to do it? It’s very easy. Say an [e] with your mouth a little more open than normally and your lips slightly spread.
  • Spelling. In most cases the sound [e] corresponds to the letter e (get, men, pet, etc.), but it’s also found as ea quite often (bread, death, already), and there are also a number of exceptions which are important because they are used in very common words: ai/ay (said, says, again), a (many), u (bury, burial), ie (friend), ei (leisure) or oe (leopard, jeopardize).

ɜː This a very important sound because it appears in many words. It’s very easy to do, but it is often mispronounced for two reasons: first, it doesn’t exist in Spanish; second, the relationship between spelling and pronunciation is really unpredictable for Spanish speakers. It is a long sound, produced without any kind of tension and hardly any movement. The tongue lays relaxed in mid position.

  • How to do it? Open your mouth a little say a long ehhhh as though you were thinking aloud.
  • Spelling. It is found in letters and combinations of letters as different as er (person), ur (fur), ir (bird), (world), ear (earn), our (journey) or eur (entrepreneur). Apart from a few exceptions (colonel), it always consists of one or two vowels followed by an r.

And here is actress Keira Knightley’s production of the sound /ɜː/

  It’s sort of I’ve grown up with her work, and I think that there was something that felt incredibly natural speaking her words (Keira Knightley, BBC4). /wɜːk/ /wɜːdz/

Now, let’s listen to /e/ and /ɜː/ in some sentences to appreciate the difference between them.

 Let me send my work. /let/ /send/ /wɜːk/

 I kept a journal. /kept/ /ˈʤɜːnl/

 I read those words with pleasure. /red/ /wɜːdz/ /ˈpleʒə/

Listen to this contrast in actor Derek Jacobi’s voice:

 I confessed to having murdered somebody (Derek Jacobi, BBC4) /kənˈfest/ /ˈmɜːdəd/

This is the type of work I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.

ə This is the most frequent sound in English and the only one which has a proper name, schwa. It is exactly the same as /ɜː/ except for two key differences: 1. It is short (very short). 2. It is never stressed (while /ɜː/ is almost always stressed).

  • How to do it? In the same way as /ɜː/. You only have to keep it short and unstressed.
  • Spelling. Almost every vowel or combination of vowels can produce this sound. Actually, vowel sounds tend to turn into /ə/ when they are not stressed: a (about), e (weather), i (pencil), o (doctor), u (surprise), ai (certain), io (cushion), ou (famous), ea (noticeable), etc.

Let’s listen to the following example, where /ə/ can be appreciated alongside /e/ and /ɜː/.

 Has it ever occurred to her?  ǀ ˈhæz ɪt ˈevər əˈkɜːd tə hə ǀ

Words such as occur /əˈkɜː/, attorney /əˈtɜːni/ or burglar /ˈbɜːɡlə/ are very useful to realize that /ə/ and /ɜː/ have the same vowel quality and only differ in stress and length.

This is a diphthong which combines two types of [e] sound. It begins with an /e/ which changes into /ə/. We found it in words like where, care or hair. It is not an easy sound for Spanish speakers, but students shouldn’t worry much about it because most of the time it’s uttered just as an /e/. Actually, it is mainly pronounced as a diphthong when it is stressed or comes before a pause, that is, at the end of a clause or sentence.

  • How to do it? Start by doing an /e/ (mouth a bit more open than in Spanish, lips slightly spread) and then change it into /ə/, which involves closing your mouth a little an relaxing your muscles. This last point is very important. Make sure you get rid of any tension in the second part of the diphthong.
  • Spelling. The vowel or vowels are always followed by the letter r. The most frequent spellings are ar (wary, scarce, various), are (bare, care, parent, aware) air (air, fairy, hair) and ear (bear, pear, wear), but it’s also found with other spellings in some very common words (where, there, they’re, their, aeroplane).

This is how it sounds:

 Subsequent to that Leontes believes that his wife, Hermione, is having an affair (Kenneth Branagh, BBC4). /əˈfeə/

Listen to the diphthong /eə/ compared to the monophthong /e/

 I shall not use the back stairs but the front steps, I shall bang a big drum (Julian Barnes, Kusp). /steəz/ /steps/

Now, let’s compare the diphthong /eə/ when it is found in the middle of a clause and when it is final.

 I don’t know where she lives. /we/

 I know she lives in England but I don’t know where. /weə/

 Don’t you care about him? /ker/

 The problem is that you don’t care. /keə/

This contrast can also be seen in this example:

 We have to say something, I think, about what puritanism is briefly and why they’re there (Simon Middleton, BBC4).  /ðe/ /ðeə/

And here is an example where the four types of [e] sound can be heard. Notice how many times -six- the schwa appears in just one small sentence.

 And a toilet on the stairs that seemed to me to be the last word in elegance (Julian Barnes, reading a story by Frank O’Connor, The New Yorker). /ə/ /ðə/ /steəz/ /ðət/ /tə/ /tə/ /wɜːd/ /ˈelɪgəns/

One final warning about length. As said in the introduction to vowel sounds, there is another element to be taken into account in order to determine the correct length of a vowel: the voicing of the consonant that follows it. The fact is that voiceless consonants cut the length of the preceding vowel. Consequently the /ɜː/ in word  /wɜːd/ is longer than the /ɜː/ in work  /wɜːk/ because /d/ is voiced whereas /k/ is voiceless. To have a full description of this phenomenon, plenty of examples, go to the pre-fortis clipping section.

Now, let’s see if you got the four types of [e] sound right (and remember what we’ve just said about length).