Monday, September 21, 2009

Tense vs. Lax "i" in American English Pronunciation

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Author: Ryan Denzer King

Article to help English Speaking and English Pronunciation by PronouncePro American English Pronunciation Writing Staff.

American English has more vowel quality distinctions than any other language, so no matter what language you speak, it probably does not have as many distinctions as English. English pronunciation has several pairs of vowels which are pronounced with your lips and tongue in approximately the same position, but where one of the vowels is "tense" and one is "lax". The fact that these vowels are so similar makes them difficult to distinguish for non-native speakers.

The first tense/lax pair is what many people call long e versus short i. The fact that one is called an 'e' sound and one is called an 'i' sound is only because of spelling; more technically, these are both 'i' sounds. If you are familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, this is the distinction between /i/ (long e) and / i / (short i). Long e is often spelled ee or ea in English spelling (which is why it is called long e). Examples include 'feed', 'seat', 'see', and 'bead'. Short i is usually spelled with a single i and usually comes before two consonants in the middle of a word or before a single word-final consonant. Examples include 'bitter', 'fit', 'tipsy', and 'lip'.

The easier sound to make for most people is the long e sound; almost every language in the world uses this as one of its vowels. In your language, this sound is probably spelled with the letter i. Beginning with this long e sound, relax your tongue without moving your lips. If done properly, this should get you very close to the short i sound. A good practice exercise is to listen to minimal pairs - words that differ only in one sound. Pairs which differ only in tense versus lax i are: feet/fit, seat/sit, bead/bid, leap/lip.


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