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OK, this has been driving me nuts. My friend and I have been learning Japanese off and on for many years, though neither of us are fluent. We got into an argument about the pronunciation of 'え'.

My textbooks said it was an English "short e" as in "bet" or "step." In my opinion, that's the IPA [ɛ]. That's how I've always pronounced it (unless it's a long ええ and then I use [e:]).

My friend was pronouncing it like the Spanish "e", closer to the English "long a" sound (although not a diphthong) and like the IPA [e].

The wikipedia page on this is inconsistent. It says it's the IPA [e] sound as in American English "bet," but that is definitely not the way I or anyone I know pronounces bet! Here's "bet" in wikitionary, agreeing with me.

When I play clips of Japanese audio and listen closely, I hear [e] in some words and [ɛ] in others. What the heck is going on here? Is there any kind of rule, does it vary by speaker, does no one notice or care?

This difference is very noticeable to me when my friend is pronouncing it. Possibly she's Englishizing the vowel a little bit. When listening to native speakers, I have to focus slightly to hear the difference, but it's still very obvious. What gives?

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  • 5
    Vowels tend to be very variable, especially in languages with relatively few vowels such as Japanese
    – Angelos
    Jun 26 '20 at 21:32
  • As long as you use English, I don't think any English dialect distinguishes //e// and //ɛ// either? Jun 27 '20 at 7:43
  • @broccolifacemask-cloth I think they do (bed vs hey) but /ɛ/ is far more common in my opinion.
    – rebuuilt
    Jun 27 '20 at 7:49
  • @rebuuilt Ummmm... yes if you count a sound in the middle of diphthongs in, but I don't feel it very fair... Jun 27 '20 at 7:54
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    @broccolifacemask-cloth Here in Barnsley, 'wet' is /wɛt/, 'wait' is /weːt/, and 'weight' is /wɛɪt/.
    – Angelos
    Jun 27 '20 at 15:15
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Japanese, a language which has 3-level vowel height system, does not have the distinction of //e// and //ɛ//. Or speaking more correctly, Japanese え and お are (true) mid vowels, that their sweet spots fall just midway of theoretical [[e]] and [[ɛ]]. (We write them [[e̞]] and [[o̞]] in IPA if necessary.)

Japanese vowels

(chart from Wikipedia)

And as far as the Standard Japanese concerned, there is no conditional allophone (that you must pronounce exactly //e// in some cases and //ɛ// other), so you may hear the sound //e// or //ɛ// totally randomly, because it is in the range of ordinary fluctuation.

IPA symbols were created for Western European languages in mind, where 4-level height system is prevailing. Compare the Italian (4-leveled) and Spanish (3-leveled like Japanese) vowel diagrams.

Italian vowelsSpanish vowels

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As long as typical え is concerned, English e as in bed is a bit too low-toungue'd for え, though it's still included in allophone. In this regard, spanish e is much closer, or the same.

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  • I agree with the Spanish e.
    – rebuuilt
    Jun 27 '20 at 5:45
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To answer this question, I checked the sounds of /ɛ/ and /e/ here.

And then I compared it to the pronunciation of which is the closest word you have to the sound of え. For good measure, I checked the pronunciation of エネルギー.

I conclude that it is closer to /ɛ/ than to /e/.

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  • Not the downvoter, but maybe the OP is looking for a difference between sounds, regardless of specific words such as 絵 or エネルギー? I mean the え int these words might sound /ɛ/, but in other words it might not, etc.
    – jarmanso7
    Jun 28 '20 at 15:56
  • Probably. That said I'd like to see a counterexample to the conclusion.
    – rebuuilt
    Jun 29 '20 at 1:33

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