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sapid : [British English] /ˈsapɪd/

sapient : BrE /ˈseɪpiənt/ ; NAmE /ˈseɪpiənt/
sapour : /ˈseɪpɔː(r)/ /-pə(r)/

To wit, what explains the difference in pronunciation, between /a/ (eg, sapid)
and /e/ (eg, sapient and sapour)?

PS: I encountered the three words above from the etymology of 'insipid'.

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  • 3
    Just a terminology note, when talking about English it's not standard to refer to "hard" and "soft" vowels. The usual terminology for contrasting the /æ/ and /ɛɪ/ pronunciations of the letter "a" would be "short" vs. "long" or "lax" vs. "tense." – sumelic Aug 16 '15 at 4:04
  • A long time ago I was taught to call them "closed" and "open", respectively. – Victor Bazarov Aug 16 '15 at 13:29
  • @VictorBazarov: in my experience, it's more usual to refer to "closed" and "open" syllables, where a closed syllable ends in a consonant and an open syllable ends in a vowel. In English, stressed lax vowels must be in closed syllables as a rule, but stressed tense vowels are found in both open and closed syllables. For example, the "i" in "mist" is lax and that in "Christ" is tense, but both of these words are "closed" syllables. – sumelic Aug 16 '15 at 23:12
  • I found a relevant ELU answer: english.stackexchange.com/questions/92374/… – sumelic Aug 16 '15 at 23:18
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The pronunciation of a single vowel letter before a single consonant letter is one of the most complicated and unpredictable parts of English spelling (unless the consonant letter is "x", in which case the vowel is almost always "short").

There are some general tendencies, but many of them have a number of exceptions.

Vowel quality in Latinate words

As a rule of thumb, you can sometimes predict the quantity in English of the stressed vowel in Latinate words (like "sapid," "sapient" and "sapour") by looking at other words that have the same suffix and the same vowel letter in the stressed syllable, and seeing how they are pronounced.

  • The pronunciation is rarely (in this case, I actually found "never") related to the original Latin vowel length. (However, in polysyllabic words, knowing the quantity of the Latin vowels may be indirectly useful as it often indicates the correct position of the stress.)
  • When different vowel letters in analogous conditions show different tendencies to be lax or tense, "i" is most likely to represent a lax vowel, and "u" is most likely to represent a tense vowel.

Part 1: Looking at analogies for "sapid"

Let's compare "sapid" with some other two-syllable adjectives with initial stress and a medial that is a permissible English and Latin onset, that end in "-id" and are derived from Latin words in "-idus":

lax vowel:

  • a: rapid, vapid, rabid, avid, gravid, acid, placid, valid, arid
  • e: tepid, (in)trepid, fetid (usually), gelid
  • i: vivid, livid, timid, rigid, frigid, liquid
  • o: solid

tense vowel:

  • u: stupid, humid, tumid, lucid, putrid

Even with these very particular conditions, we don't have 100% consistency. But these words do seem to follow a pattern. If I tried to formulate a rule, I'd say the vowel is usually pronounced as lax, but as an exception, "u" tends to be pronounced tense.

Other suffixes that tend to be preceded by a "short" stressed vowel, unless the vowel is u, are -ule, -ic, and the verb suffix -ish (although usually not the native English adjective suffix -ish).


Part 2: Looking at analogies for "sapient"

There are very few or no other words in English ending in "-apient" (what rhymes with "sapient"?) but we can look at words ending in "-ient" more generally with the same stress pattern as "sapient."

lax vowel:

  • i: recipient, efficient, sufficient, resilient* < Latin rĕcĭpĭẽns, ĕffĭcĭẽns, sŭffĭcĭẽns, rĕsĭlĭẽns

tense vowel:

  • a: salient*, gradient, patient† < Latin sălĭẽns, grădĭẽns, pătĭẽns
  • e: expedient, obedient, ingredient, aperient, prevenient, convenient*, < Latin ĕxpĕdĭẽns, ŏbœdĭẽns, ĭngrĕdĭẽns, ăpĕrĭẽns, prævĕnĭẽns, cŏnvĕnĭẽns
  • o: quotient† < Latin quŏtĭẽns
  • u: nutrient, prurient, esurient < Latin nūtrĭẽns, prūrĭẽns, ēsŭrĭẽns

Again, for some reason different vowel letters seem to have differing tendencies in this context towards a tense or lax pronunciation in English: "i" is generally lax, while other vowel letters are generally tense. There is no apparent relationship between the English pronunciation and the original vowel quantity in Latin.

The letters a, e, o, and u also tend to be pronounced "long" before other endings starting with e or i followed by another vowel letter, such as -ious, -ian, -ial, -eous, -ion.

*note: words marked with an asterisk are not perfect analogies to "sapient," as the "i" in them is usually pronounced as a semivocalic consonant in English rather than as a vowel.
†note: these words are also not perfect analogies; the "i" has passed through a semivowel stage and has actually disappeared entirely by coalescing with the preceding consonant


Part 3: Looking at analogies for "sapour"

lax vowel:

  • a: clamo(u)r < Latin clāmŏr
  • e: tremor < Latin trĕmŏr
  • i: vigo(u)r, rigo(u)r, liquor < Latin vĭgŏr, rĭgŏr, lĭquŏr†
  • o: hono(u)r, colo(u)r* < Latin hŏnŏr, cŏlŏr

tense vowel:

  • a: vapo(u)r, labo(u)r, valo(u)r, favo(u)r, savo(u)r < Latin văpŏr, lăbŏr, vălŏr, făvŏr, săpŏr
  • o: dolo(u)r, odo(u)r < Latin dŏlŏr, ŏdŏr
  • u: rumo(u)r, tumo(u)r, stupor†, furor† < Latin rūmŏr, tŭmŏr, stŭpŏr, fŭrŏr

Similarly to before, it seems that in this context "i" tends to be lax, while "u" tends to be tense. "A" also seems to be tense more often than not; but it is lax in "clamo(u)r," which rhymes with the non-Latinate word "glamo(u)r." The letter "o" shows no overall tendencies; its pronunciation varies a lot between different words. Again, there is no apparent relationship between the English pronunciation and the original vowel quantity in Latin.

*note: "colo(u)r" also has an exceptional, though not unprecedented, pronunciation of the lax "o"
†note: Unlike most of the other words listed above, the "-our" form is considered archaic in British spelling as well as American for "stupor" and "liquor," and they are consequently spelled with "-or" on both sides of the Atlantic. Also, the spelling of "liquor" does not correspond very regularly to its pronunciation in English; this makes it a bit more questionable as an example.


Discussion

In this particular case, analogy to other words with the same vowel letter and the same morphological structure actually successfully predicts the quality of the vowel in all three words. But, analogy isn't always this reliable. Analogy is most useful if the word is very rare or newly coined. If you can find it in a dictionary, that's a much easier way to determine the pronunciation.

Possible explanations

Since I first wrote this answer, I read an interesting explanation for the fact that "a", "e" and "o" are usually pronounced "long" before a single consonant followed by "e" or "i" and then another vowel letter.

In "The Architecture of the English Lexicon" (1998), Jonathan B. Alcántara describes an analysis of this phenomenon in terms of compensatory lengthening: the "i" or "e" may surface as a glide or as mere palatalization of the preceding consonant, but he argues that the mora associated with the vowel is transmitted to the vowel in the preceding syllable when it is more sonorous (which is true for /a, e, o/, but not for /i/).


Resources I used

To find English words ending with certain sequences of letters, I made use of an online Scrabble word finder.

To find the quantity of Latin vowels, I generally used Wiktionary (not a great source in terms of reliability or consistency, but it's free and easy to access).

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