I don't understand what's the difference between /iə/ and /ɪə/.


Can somebody explain ?

Best Regards.


The nature of the difference and how it is phonetically realized would depend on the speaker (for some speakers, there might not even be much phonetic difference), but the basic difference would be that "ɪə" underlyingly is a unitary vowel sound belonging to a single syllable while "iə" underlyingly is two separate vowel sounds in adjacent syllables.

Historically, RP "/ɪə/" is an r-colored long e sound; it was diphthongized and lowered by the effect of the following /r/, but it is typically analyzed as a remaining a single syllable in terms of its phonological behavior.

The /i/ in "/məˈtɪəriəl/" is an instance of the happy vowel. The "happy vowel" is a name for a vowel of uncertain or arguable identity that occurs only in certain restricted contexts: always in unstressed syllables, and only at the end of a word or before a following syllable that starts with a vowel. In a traditional RP accent, the happy vowel is actually identified with the stressed vowel found in the word kit, and so it was often transcribed /ɪ/. Using the transcription /i/ to contrast the happy vowel with the kit vowel /ɪ/ is as far as I know a more recent convention, used by the linguist John Wells to indicate that for many contemporary British English speakers, the happy vowel is now perceived as being closer to the fleece vowel than it is to the kit vowel.

In words where the happy vowel is followed by another vowel, some process of phonetic "compression" may occur. The type of compression depends on the accent and speaker, but for example, the sequence /i.ə/ might be compressed for some speakers to something that sounds like [jə].

In contemporary southern British English accents, it is common in many contexts to "smooth" the putative diphthong "/ɪə/" to a long monophthong /ɪː/.

Here is a blog post by John Wells ("rising diphthongs") that indicates that even though the ends of words like reindeer and windier are typically transcribed differently, as /dɪə/ vs /diə/, these are not always clearly distinct in pronunciation.

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  • Thank you for this great explanation ! So If I understood correclty (perdon me english is not my mother tongue), in big letters, did wordreference write it this way because /ɪə/ in /mə'tɪəriəl/ is a followed by r (r-colored) ? – Mintou Mar 23 at 0:42
  • I think we can say "yes, the schwa of /ɪə/ is there because of the R sound"; you can test by making up a minimal pair: "matedial" would have to be either /məˈtɪdiəl/ or /məˈti:diəl/; in order for it to be /məˈtɪədiəl/, there would have to be either a vocalized R in front of the /d/ or a vowel as heard in "Mattias" /məˈti:əs/. – John Frazer Mar 23 at 6:21
  • Check out this glorious video about marbled paper: youtu.be/Vyga8VMWXKg?t=49 where at 12:52 the speaker uses the very word, 'material'. Although recorded in 1970, the diction and accent of the narrator are still rather more firmly grounded in RP ('BBC English') than would be likely in a more recent recording; I think when you loop over a snippet containing 'material', you will be able to perceive a material [sic] difference between the first and the second palatal vowel. Also look out for words like 'clearly', 'nearly'; their main vowels are unlike those of 'shreek', 'week'. – John Frazer Mar 23 at 6:39

One analysis of claimed [iə] in material is that it is disyllabic (two unstressed syllables after the stress), whereas ostensive [ɪə] is one syllable. I am skeptical that the UK vs US pronunciation of material is [ɪə] vs. [ɪ], though in these tokens there is a prosodic difference. This may be more ideology than actual phonetic difference.

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The first part of /iə/ sounds like (that is, has the same quality as) the vowel sound in bead /biːd/ whereas the first part of /ɪə/ sounds like the vowel sound in bid /bɪd/.

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