I'm rephrasing my question after (very helpful) comments to my initial version:

  • What are the differences between the [i] produced by French speakers (in French) and English speakers (in English)?
  • Does the English [i] ever occur in a context such as C_C i.e: [ʃi:p] where minimal pairs are possible without the lengthening? Is this a redundancy built into the language so [i]~[ɪ] can be discriminated?

Previous title: [ɪ]~[i] production by native French speakers of English - why is [ɪ] the 'default'?

My assumption is that the vowel [ɪ] does not exist in (standard) French even as an allophone. When (mis)pronouncing sheet/shit, beach/bitch, etc, anecdotal tellings of this particular error seems to favour the [ɪ] in terms of occurrence (if someone can point to an actual study that would be appreciated).

Is the French [i] of 'livre' /livʁ/ known to be far shorter in duration than the English [i] in 'leave' /li:v/? When 'leave' is pronounced by a French speaker as /liv/ (note: correct vowel, but not lengthened) is this being perceived by native English speakers as an occurrence of 'live' /lɪv/?

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    I'm not sure I understand your "why is [ɪ] the 'default'?": you say yourself that it is really a short [i]? In a word where an Englishman expects long [i], the French short [i] will be perceived as "different", and so he may think the Frenchman said [ɪ]; but the converse is also the case, in that he may think the Frenchman said long [i] in a word where he expects [ɪ], just because what the Frenchman said was different from the expected [ɪ].
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jun 20, 2013 at 15:35
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    English [ɪ] and [iː] differ in two ways, vowel quality and vowel length. In some transcription schemes the length mark is omitted. To speakers of other langauges learning English their native language may have only one "i" sound so to them it may sound closer to one or the other of ours, or they may not hear a difference between our two sounds. Conversely, the sound they use, us native English speakers will perceive as one or the other sound even if it lies somewhere between. The actual sound may be something like a short i, a long ɪ, or something else in that general range. Commented Jun 21, 2013 at 1:09
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    @sanlikestabbies: Actually some print dictionaries including at least some of Oxford's publications have in recent decades taken to using three symbols: [ɪ] as in "hit", [iː] as in "heat" and [i] for the final "-y" as in "meaty" and "pretty". English "short" vowels cannot occur in open syllables. The "long" "i" can as in both vowels in "teepee"/"tipi". The best minimal pair I can come up with is "goaty" (goat-like) vs "goatee" (tuft of beard on the chin). Sorry @musicallinguist but not everybody agrees. Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 2:01
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    @hippietrail goatee and goaty is not a minimal pair: they differ in stress placement.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 10:00
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    Well goaty and goatee do differ only in the last syllable. Exactly how depends on the analysis of -y, the variety of English, etc. ee has only the realization [iː] but -y has various realizations including [iː] and [ɪ]. Anyway this is drifting off-topic. I would ask a new devoted question but I don't follow your point. Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 8:44

2 Answers 2


I think there is a bit of confusion about the translatability of the IPA. The [i] in English is lengthened or not lengthened based on convention of transcription rather than because of a belief in some underlying difference in pronunciation. [i:] is the typical modern transcription and [i] is used as a compromise in some contexts (like -ity) where different speakers pronounce different vowels. As such I think the comparison between French and English should happen outside the traditional transcription and on particular uses. I don't know enough about French to offer an opinion but thought I'd caution against oversimplifying the English situation. See http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/ipa-english-uni.htm

  • When American dictionaries and linguistics use IPA they seem to prefer [i] over [iː]. Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 15:53
  • @hippietrail In GA vowel length seems to be phonologically less relevant than in many English accents. In my experience the phonetic length is even omitted in American phonetic transcriptions. I personally dislike the American transcription conventions for that reason. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 17:20

Perhaps I could answer, being both French and British.

Isolated, the French "i" should not be difficult at all, it is exactly like the British "e", and I don't see any word where it should not be short. I believe that there is no pitfall like "to live" vs "a life".

To make it longer (much less than into "leave" or "sheet" however), it is followed by "e", e.g. "la mie" (soft part of the bread), or a "y" is used instead, such as "ayez confiance" (be confident).

However, the emphasis may lengthen it a bit : - in "Comme j'admire l'Italie !", the "i" of "admire" will be longer, or rather more stressed, than in - "Moi, prétendre que j'admire l'Italie !" because the first sentence is a praise, the second shows despise. The "It...." is abrupt, the "...lie" soft.

However, when combined with some letters, it is tricky : "j'ai un lapin" (I have a rabbit) is very difficult for an English speaker, and I don't find a way to transcribe the pronunciation, "ai" and "in" being nonexistent. No difficulty in "livre" or "lit" however.

Used with a "tréma" (ï), it is isolated ; "aïe !" (= ouch !) is almost pronounced ah-ii-euh, as in "pagaille" (= mess, chaos)

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    The question was about sounds. Most of your answer is about letters, which have not much to do with sounds in either French or English.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 16:02
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    There is no difference in length between la mie du pain and l'amie Dupin, either in my idiolect or that I've ever perceived. (There are dialects where the spelling e results in a schwa, but that's a different matter.) More generally, French doesn't really do vowel length, and doesn't spell it. (I'm a native French speaker who lived in France for pretty much all my life.) Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 22:06

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