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When I say the word 'day,' I say /dɛi/, or perhaps /dɛj/. However, when I look at any dictionary that uses IPA, they always write the diphthong as /eɪ/. Why is this? Maybe my dialect of English (UK East Midlands) is just weird, but I feel like I hear it in other accents too? If I try to pronounce the diphthong /eɪ/, it sounds a bit like 'player', but without the pl and instead of a schwa, it's the vowel /ɪ/. Again, maybe my hearing is off, maybe my dialect is strange, or maybe I don't understand IPA well, but I feel like I'm missing something.

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  • I agree with you. I note that in the Wikipedia article on English phonology there is a note, cited to Wells 1982, that "RP transcriptions use /e/ rather than /ɛ/ largely for convenience and historical tradition", though this does not explicitly refer to the diphthong – Colin Fine Apr 2 '20 at 11:10
  • I thought it would be something like that. – user28320 Apr 2 '20 at 11:32
  • I definitely hear [eɪ] in most qualities of English I've encountered (I'm not native, but my native language makes a clear distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/). Note that I wrote [eɪ] to indicate a phonetic transcription in English, while for my native language, i've used slashes, indicating a phonemic transcription: this is because in English, there is wide variation in actual vowels depending on dialects, and so while your pronunciation of /eɪ/ as [ɛi] may be uncommon, it is no less "valid" than any, and it can still be transcribed as /eɪ/, if that is the common representation for that phoneme. – LjL Apr 2 '20 at 14:07
  • For me the first element is not as open as the vowel in bed, and a lot less open than /ɛ:/ in hair. Since there is no true /e/ I suppose it makes sense to use that symbol for the vowel in bed, to show that it differs in quality (not just length) from the one in bear. If the starting point of the vowel in day is closer to that /e/ than to /ɛ/ - and as I say I'd put it on the other side of /e/ from /ɛ/ - then it really has to be written with /e/ for the first element, or you've upset the system. – rchivers Apr 2 '20 at 16:59
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Whether it's pronounced [ɛi] or [ei] is just a matter of fact, and in my Midwestern American dialect, as a matter of fact, it's [ei]. And it's always [ei], so I don't know why anyone would choose a phonemic form that is any different, so that gives us /ei/ also.

For those who think they hear [ɛi], try comparing a hurried and very sloppy pronunciation of "Betty" and "bay". For me, after the [t] of [bɛti] is flapped, in a sufficiently sloppy style, that flap can be lost, giving a two syllable pronunciation [bɛi] and further the [i] can lose its syllabicity (which I leave implicit in my transcription), giving a contrast between [bɛi] and [bei].

Imagine that Betty from San Francisco is notorious for some reason; then "San Francisco Betty" would be [bɛi], clearly different from "San Francisco Bay", with [bei].

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  • We must have similar idiolects, since your experiment works perfectly for me, and there's no lax vowel in my front mid diphthong. – jlawler Apr 2 '20 at 18:14
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IPA vowels are based on Jones' cardinal vowels. In transcribing a word like "day", choices of letter are the result of numerous factors which are not articulated as rigorous rules of IPA usage. One pertains to the extent to which a transcription is phonetic, meaning that it strives to represent the pronunciation of a word, rather than the phonological analysis of the word. In that case, the choice of [ɪ] over [j,i] is based on phonetic similarity -- the second half of "day" is phonetically closer to the reference vowel [ɪ] than it is to [i].

This does assume a fixed standard for these symbols, which appears to be limited to some recordings by a very few experts. In the case of [i], the standard is supplemented by Jones' instructions regarding how to produce that cardinal vowel (the highest, frontest possible vowel whose constriction isn't so narrow as to induce turbulence). Of course, you are free to reject that standard, and many people don't actually employ a reference set of vowels in making judgements. Even if they do, auditory proximity is an art-judgment (it depends on a "feeling" by an individual), and is not a scientific measure.

As for phonological reasons to prefer one transcription over the other, there are vast numbers of mutually contradictory principles of some phonological theory that one can call on to make a decision. For example if you make it an axiom that English has no diphthongs (sequences of syllabic segments within a syllable), then any of [ei,eɪ, ɛi, ɛɪ] are excluded. If you make it an axiom that the glide [j] only appears in the onset, [ej, ɛj] are precluded. If you favor phoneme-minimization, you should prefer either [e: e] and dispense with [ɛ] entirely. There are very few phonological arguments that bear on the choice. However, there is a vowel alternation associated with contraction, so that the vowels in "she, they, I" become shorter and laxer before /r,l/ under contraction, thus [ʃi ~ ʃɪl, ðe ~ ðɛl, aj ~ ɑl] – unless in a particular dialect those are not the facts. From a phonological perspective, the choice is mainly driven by phonological ideology.

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