Tuesday 29 November 2011


The Guardian has a regular rubric in its Corrections and Clarifications column, Homophone Corner. Yesterday’s read as follows.This led me to wonder what proportion of NSs have illicit (illegal) and elicit (evoke) as categorical homophones. Most of us, for sure. But are there some who make the vowel of elicit tenser than that of illicit? And do they do this variably or categorically?

I ask because this is relevant to the notation appropriate for the Latin prefix e- in English words. As you will be aware, for the third edition of LPD I simplified the notation for the unstressed prefixes be-, de-, pre-, re-, deciding to use the happY vowel i rather than enumerating mainstream ɪ plus variant . (In any case we still need the further variant with ə.) I really wasn’t sure whether to include the e- words in this, but eventually decided to.
Even that decision left marginal cases that were difficult to decide, and for which I may with hindsight have made the wrong decision. Elect? Event? Eleven? Of course, the decision for each particular word must depend not on etymology but on whether there appear to be people who use the tenser vowel — hence the inclusion of eleven, which does certainly not contain Latin e-.

It also means that the main pronunciation given for elicit, iˈlɪsɪt, looks different from that for its putative homophone illicit, ɪˈlɪsɪt, which clearly has no tense-vowel variant. (Compare the main prons for descent diˈsent and dissent dɪˈsent, which likewise are homophones for most speakers but I think not all.)

For previous discussion of the general issue, see my blog for 29 Jan 2007.


  1. Jack Windsor Lewis writes:
    I shd describe forms of elicit like [i`lɪsɪt] or [iː`lɪsɪt] as so uncharacteristic of General British (aka RP) as to be controversial in terms of their assignment to it. When he·rd from a GB-category speaker they tend to suggest to me either regional influence, or pedantry or fastidiousness inflenced by orthography. My impression is that among the non-elderly /ə`lɪsɪt/ is predominant in GB. That's what Howjsay seems to have. The MacMillan Dictionary speaker has something quaintly indistinguishable
    from /`ɪlɪsɪt/!

  2. I have in the past taught language awareness to teacher trainees, and so had to use the terms elicit, response, feedback which are central to an important analysis of classroom discourse.

    Thus my repertoire includes the pronunciation ɛlɪsɪt which I would tend to use once or twice to remind students what the word was. I don't know whether this should be classified as secondary stress.

    I did something similar with the technical term affect — i.e. an initial æ with perhaps a little stress. I believe this is common in more than one discipline.

    (The most problematic homophonal pair for language teachers is oral~aural. I tend do say 'eɪ 'ju: 'ɔ:rᵊl for the latter. Others say 'aʊrᵊl.)

    I'm not certain, but I suspect I modify the e- towards an ɛ sound in other words when they arise unexpectedly in conversation: e.g. ɪˈlɛkt when talking politics, but ɛ'lɛkt in if you elect to do so. I'm almost certain I would use ɛ in Daughter-in-law Elect — though I think the D' Oyly Carte norm may be ˈi:ˈlɛkt.

  3. Both would be ɪˈlɪsɪt for me.

    If it were necessary to disambiguate, I suppose I might use iˈlɪsɪt for "elicit": however I'm having a hard time imagining a situation
    where such disambiguation would be necessary.

  4. As I already mentioned before, I disagree with the use of /i/ in words such as believe because it suggests that people who distinguish between studied and studded usually use the former's vowel in believe, which AFAICT they usually don't. (I'd also have a symbol specifically for reduced KIT, e.g. OED's small-cap I with stroke.)

  5. vp

    I'm having a hard time imagining a situation
    where such disambiguation would be necessary

    What if you had to say elicit move? This can happen with the Birmingham school of Discourse Analysis.

  6. GenAm speaker here. I'm surprised that the pronunciation of illicit with a doubled l is not mentioned. I'm pretty sure that I have ɪlˈlɪsət--or perhaps ˌɪlˈlɪsət, with secondary stress on the first syllable--much as if the word were a compound expression, *ill-licit. If this is eccentric, I had no idea of the fact. For elicit I seem to have əˈlɪsət.

  7. What about illegal and a legal (document, etc.)? Are they homophones for any native speakers?

  8. Like MKR, I tend to have /ə/ for the first vowel in elicit, but an unreduced /ɪ/ in illicit. I don't have a doubled l, though, and elicit could have something like /ɪ/ so they can be homophones.

    In response to Jeremy Smith's question, I myself would never reduce the first vowel in illegal (or indeed any Latin il-, im-, or in- prefixes) to /ə/. So no possibility of this being pronounced the same as a legal for me.

    In production, at least, I have a tenser vowel in descent than in dissent. Both vowels, though, can be reduced to /ə/, so they can be homophones that way. I'm exactly not sure why I don't usually have a tenser vowel in elicit like I do with descent, but I guess I'm just inconsistent.

  9. @Jeremy Smith

    What about illegal and a legal (document, etc.)? Are they homophones for any native speakers?

    Off the top of my head, I would expect Australians, New Zealanders, and others with the Weak Vowel Merger to have these as homophones.

  10. @vp

    But the Macquarie Dictionary, which does a good job of showing the weak vowels in Australian English, has an unreduced /ɪ/ as the first vowel of illegal. I myself have a pretty advanced weak vowel merger, and as I said I would never have /ə/ for the first vowel of illegal.

  11. Jongseong writes: "Like MKR, I tend to have /ə/ for the first vowel in elicit, but an unreduced /ɪ/ in illicit."

    For what it's worth, me too (from north London, age late 30s)

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