How can I distinguish the pronunciation of "pre" from "per" in the beginning of a word?

How can I distinguish the pronunciation of "des" from "dis" in the beginning of a word?

For example: destiny, desire and distribution. The de in the word destiny has a different sound than the de in the word desire. di in the distribution has similar sound to de in the desire. The question is; Are there general guide lines to determine when to use des and dis in writing besides memorisation? similar question is about pre and per

  • Are you asking about pronouncing these, or about hearing them when pronounced by other people? – John Feltz Jan 8 '17 at 16:29
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    Examples? The difference between desk and disk should be pretty clear, but the difference between despondent and dispersion is non-existent for many speakers. – Peter Shor Jan 8 '17 at 16:34
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    Please include the research you've done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. – NVZ Jan 8 '17 at 18:23
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    What 'variety' of English are you referring to: British, American, Indian, Australian, ...? I can see that des & dis may be difficult to distinguish apart at times, But I cannot understand how pre & per could be confused with one another, at least in British English? – TrevorD Jan 8 '17 at 18:40
  • If you say "despicable" with the first syllable, "des," accented, it sounds quite distinct from "dis." picable. But if you split up the first syllable and say "de" "spicable," it comes pretty close to "dis" spicable. Sometimes these prefixes switch over time. For example, the older word perpend, which used "per" to mean thorough, as in peruse, switched to prepend. Even with the new spelling, the word still means mull over or consider carefully, but the change was enough to trick some into using prepend to mean "attach at the beginning." The new meaning is useful and so we have a new word. – Airymouse Jan 8 '17 at 18:44

In the American standard, you should be able to guess the spelling of primary or secondary stressed "des" or "dis" at the beginning of a word. In "destiny" and "destination", "des" is stressed and has the vowel of "pet", "met" and so on. In "distant", "disproportionate", "dis" is stressed and has the vowel of "sit", "bit", and so on.

Immediately before a stressed second syllable, however, "des"/"dis" can be stressless and the vowel can vary. The reduced vowel schwa is always okay, so far as I know, but in "desire", I find also acceptable the "i" of "pit" or the "e" of "scene". The "i" pronunciation is perhaps a variant form of reduced vowel, and the "e" is probably a spelling pronunciation.

Unstressed "dis", immediately before a stressed syllable, I find varies between schwa and the "i" of "pit", at least when a consonant follows, for instance in "dismay", "disturb", "dispassionate", which I would also attribute to two variant reduced vowels. When a stressed vowel follows the "dis", as in "disable", the schwa doesn't sound as good, and in "dissect", a tense "ay" diphthong is also possible.

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    The varying, reduced vowel is commonly known as a schwi /ᵻ/. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 8 '17 at 19:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, I never heard of "schwi". I am not referring here to bar-i, which I take to be a high central vowel, but rather to front high lax "i", – Greg Lee Jan 8 '17 at 19:54
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, I read over the Wikipedia reference you gave for "schwi". I think there is some confusion there between what "i"s are front and what ones are central. – Greg Lee Jan 8 '17 at 20:03
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    It’s not a bar-i, but a bar-ɪ. The difference between the two is sadly obscured somewhat on Apple computers, whose versions of Helvetica have a bug that displays non-dotted ɪ (as in Turkish) identically to the BIT vowel. /ᵻ/ is a non-standard, non-precomposed glyph consisting of a barred BIT vowel, and it is used to represent precisely this phoneme which is not specified for front-vs-centralness, but varies quite freely between [ə ~ ɪ ~ ɪ̈ ~ i̵], ranging between mid and high, and between central and near-front. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 8 '17 at 20:08
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, Well, notation aside, I just don't think American English word final unstressed "-y" is a front vowel (as in "city"). I think it's central, and is homorganic with the [j] offglide. I don't subscribe to a theory which permits phonemes to have unspecified features, any more than a sound can be partially unspecified. – Greg Lee Jan 8 '17 at 20:28

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