2

Example words:
Decode
Demilitarize

Are given in Wiktionary with a short i sound
"Dick-oh-d"
"Dim-ill-it-ugh-rise"

But I can‘t find anything in other dictionaries or examples on Youtube to back this up. Is it always pronounced like "dee" correct?
I am interested in both UK and North American English.

1

Syllabification side point

This is a side point, but one thing to keep in mind is that even with a short i sound, "decode" would not be pronounced like "Dick-oh-d". You may have heard a rule about "short" vowel sounds being grouped with a following consonant, but that rule only applies when in syllables that have some degree of stress. A short vowel sound can occur at the end of a fully unstressed syllable (the exact circumstances in which you find short vowels are different in different accents).

When the syllable "de-" is pronounced with a short i sound, it is fully unstressed, and so the following consonant acts as the start of the second syllable in the word, not as the end of the first syllable. If a pronunciation of decode with the short i sound in the first syllable exists (I'm not sure about that), it would have to be "dih-kohd" [dɪˈkʰoʊd].

One more thing: in some accents (in particular, very often in North American English), the short i sound in unstressed syllables is not clearly distinct from the schwa sound. This is called the "weak vowel merger".

"Demilitarize" with a short vowel is in MW; "decode" seems less likely to me to have a short vowel

Merriam Webster corroborates the existence of two pronunciations for demilitarize: one where the first syllable has the long e sound and potentially has secondary stress, and one where the first syllable has the short i sound and is unstressed.

For decode and demilitarize, it certainly wouldn't be an issue to always pronounce the first syllable with a long e sound. But there are some words starting with de- where that would be unusual. The verbs deposit, derive, deceive, delude all start with a syllable that is etymologically derived from the Latin prefix de-, but the second parts of these verbs are not used as independent elements in English. Because of this, they tend not to be pronounced with a long e sound in the first syllable.

One way to think of it is that as a productive English prefix, de- is pronounced with a long e sound. So when de- has been used in English to form a new English word from another English word, it is pronounced with a long e sound. But in words where the prefix was added before the word entered English, it may be pronounced in other ways (when unstressed, as [dɪ] or [də]; when stressed, as [dɛ], as in demonstrate, definition, designation).

Sometimes context or emphasis can affect the pronunciation of a prefix like de-

Here is an interesting article that talks about some examples, like defuse and descend:

"Pronunciation of Prefixed Words in Speech: The Importance of Semantic and Intersubjective Parameters", by Nicolas Videau and Sylvie Hanote, Lexis [Online], 9 | 2015, Online since 13 May 2015

  • Your answer is terrific as always! You seem to always understand the cause of the OP’s confusion and then you are able to resolve it by giving just enough side information. Reading your answers always gives me a feeling of having grasped the essence of the topic. – Yordan Grigorov May 25 at 0:05
  • I apologize if this one should be a post of this own but here it is: Do you think that in North America the average “weak vowel merged” person can easily detect when another person is unmerged (and vice versa). The reason I am asking is that in my native language, some sound changes (innovations) are very noticeable to native speakers, whereas for others, most people can’t even hear the difference even if they tried to. An easy way to answer would be to recall if you were able to hear that some people are merged and others are not before you learned that this phenomenon exists. – Yordan Grigorov May 25 at 0:42
  • @YordanGrigorov: I would not say that the lack of the merger is very noticeable to a merged speaker such as myself. In some contexts it is easier to hear a difference than in others: in unstressed word-final syllables ending in /l/, such as the last syllable of the word "evil", I find the use of [ɪ] sounds noticeably over-emphasized. But in a word like "delude" I find it hard to tell even whether my own pronunciation is closer to [ɪ] or [ə]. – sumelic May 25 at 0:47
  • @YordanGrigorov: Also, the distribution of [ɪ] or [ə] differs between speakers, so there is not a strict two-way division between speakers with a merger and speakers without one. For example, I consider myself to have the merger, but I feel like I use [ɪ] rather than [ə] in the last syllable of words ending in -ic, like civic. My understanding is that many UK speakers may have [ə] in some words where an "RP English" accent traditionally had [ɪ], such as various words ending in -il and -ace. – sumelic May 25 at 0:50
  • (Actually, I hadn't realized, but it seems that the use of [ɪ] in words ending in -il is not usual for any common contemporary southern English accent, based on John Wells's Monday 7 April 2008 blog post "A voice from the past"). – sumelic May 25 at 0:53
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When using the English language "always" is very rarely applicable. You will invariably find an exception to any rule.

However, where the prefix de- is being used to indicate removal of something, as in your examples, the pronunciation is with a long vowel dee-. This applies in most regional variants of English.

If the word simply starts with de, for example defence, where it is not a prefix to another word, the pronunciation may vary from location to location.

  • Nice to see you again, after all this time. – choster May 24 at 16:15
  • @choster: Thank you. I have come through what might be called interesting times. – Chenmunka May 24 at 17:15

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