The familiar /iː/ and /ɪ/, but also the mysterious /i/. How many phonemes do we need?

Natalia Malenko puts the following excellent question. But before you read it look carefully at the difference between the three symbols above….

Natalia says….I have noticed, as probably some other lecturers/teachers have too, that in some dictionaries there is an interesting fashion of transcribing words with an /i/ (with a dot on top but no colon length marker) for the final sound in words like happy, empty, archeology and the like.

Maybe I have missed something vital in phonetic conventions? What am I supposed to say to my students? How to explain this, if there is no such a sign in the IPA chart?  How would you explain that? Please, help me solve my personal dilemma, what is this mysterious sign? My kindest regards,  Natalia Malenko

Hi Natalia     It is a question of how finely you want to distinguish sounds. The science of phonetics tries to distinguish all sounds. Phonology on the other hand is concerned with what are the fewest distinctions that give learners everything they need (typically given today as 44 in RP English for example).

As EL teachers we are probably interested in phonemic rather than phonetic distinctions. We agree that each phoneme is actually a package of allophones (variants) of that phoneme which make no change in meaning, and these allophone variants can be understood as being somewhere in the box that surrounds each phoneme on the chart.

In the 70’s and 80’s learner dictionaries general subsumed /i/ under /ɪ/ thereby stating that the sound at the end of happy is phonemically part of the allophone set of /ɪ/. Personally I think that is a reasonable decision for teachers and learners, and indeed I still cannot myself reliably hear a distinction between the sound at the end of happy and /ɪ/.

However, more recently dictionaries have tended to say  “No, the sound at the end of happy actually has the quality of /iː/ only it is shorter, thus transcribed like this /i/, ie using the same symbol with the dot on top but without the length colon. And this extra vowel phoneme /i/  gives us a total of 45 phonemes for RP. My view is that this is a case of phonetics infiltrating phonology, misleading students and teachers by adding a complication that may be of interest to phoneticians, but may not help students and teachers.  What’s the point in giving and teaching symbols for allophones?

If my students do ask about the /i/ I tell them whenever they see it they can use /ɪ/. However, if they are ready for a fuller answer I simply point at /iː/ on the chart (remember I have the pron chart on the board all the time which makes everything much easier) and invite them to say /iː/, which has length as indicated by the colon. But, then I cover the colon with my finger and again point to the symbol, now of course without the colon, and ask them to say it like that. This obliges them to hear and say long /iː/ and short /i/and I help them to sense and hear and say the difference, responding to presence or absence of the length marker. It’s a nice activity (which by the way you can do with all five of the so-called long vowels on the BrE chart) because it shows students that they are already in possession of the short sound /i/if they want to use it, but otherwise my advice is to use /ɪ/.

What’s more, and this is neat, it demonstrates that the phoneme /i/ is already on the chart, and that when you want to evoke it you simply cover the colon of the top left symbol /iː/ with your finger.

I have met teachers who think the /i/ v /ɪ/ distinction is valid but who think it is not useful for students, and I have met teachers who think students should learn this distinction. So, as with many things, there is no Big Correctness out there, it is up to you. But… the phoneme symbol in question is on the chart!  Adrian

*****

Thank you for your response. I liked the way you put it and your reply is exhaustive. Natalia

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3 Responses to The familiar /iː/ and /ɪ/, but also the mysterious /i/. How many phonemes do we need?

  1. I had this question too.

  2. Pingback: ‘The familiar /iː/ and /ɪ/ and the mysterious /i/ How many do we need?’ by Adrian Underhill | Rakesh Patel

  3. Linda Yael says:

    Hi, Adrian,
    If your students’ mother tongue is a Romance language, they already have the pure vowel /i/ in their language. in my case, I teach mostly Spanish speakers, so /i/ is easy for them. For /i:/, I tell them it needs to be longer. Their problem is usually the short i (sorry, don’t have this symbol on my keyboard!), which is not in their language.

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