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Please tell me the difference between two Short Symbols sounds, /i/ vs. /ɪ/.

If there is no difference so why do both of them exist in Cambridge dictionary?

In its page pronunciation symbol there is only long symbol /iː/ and short symbol /ɪ/. How did they get this symbol /i/ out? It drives me crazy. Everyone pretends that it does not exist, but nevertheless they continue to write different signs on different occasions. I don't understand the rules..

For example in words:

  • Happy /ˈhæp.i/
  • Dinner /ˈdɪn.ər/

I am not talking about American transcription, I am talking about British one.

3 Answers 3

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In Southern Standard British English, also know as RP, there are two highish, frontish unrounded vowels: the FLEECE and KIT vowels, /i:/ and /ɪ/. The former is the vowel heard in the word fleece, the latter the vowel heard in kit.

Speakers use one of these two vowels in certain weak, unstressed, open syllables (i.e. ones without a final consonant), for example in the last syllable of the word happy or the first syllable of delineate. Very old speakers favour /ɪ/ and younger speakers /i:/. John Well's innovation for the transcription of such words in dictionaries, and particularly for the benefit of EFL users, was to use the symbol /i/ for the vowel in such positions. It signifies that the vowel may be either a KIT or a FLEECE vowel. It does not signify a short vowel of the FLEECE quality, and it does not represent a third i-type phoneme in addition to KIT and FLEECE.

Here is what John Wells had to say in one of his blogs on this topic:

The symbol i does not mean “neither long nor short”. It means that RP traditionally has lax ɪ in these positions, but that many speakers nowadays use a tense vowel like . Therefore the EFL learner may use one or the other indifferently in these cases, because it does not make any difference whether the vowel is tense or lax. See further the discussion in LPD under "Neutralization" (p. 539 in the third edition).

In LPD I use the symbol i in those cases where some people have a tense vowel in place of the traditional RP lax vowel: namely, in weak positions that are

(a) word-final, as happy, coffee, valley,

(b) prevocalic, as various, euphoria,

(c) in the unstressed prefixes be-, de-, pre-, re- and certain word-like combining forms such as poly-.

The LPD there is the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. John Wells was aware of the confusion this innovation caused and in several posts he mentions that "It seemed like a good idea at the time!"

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  • I don’t think decompress is a good example, since that (at least in my experience) always has long, tense /iː/, with no variation, unlike words like denote or delimit, which do exhibit the variation. (Also, it’s not quite true that it “does not signify a short vowel of the FLEECE quality”. It doesn’t signify a separate phoneme pronounced like that across the board, but short, tense [i] is quite a common realisation of the HAPPY vowel.) Nov 14, 2022 at 0:33
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    @JanusBahsJacquet That's what's often thought (re 'short' /i/), but not the case apparently. In any case, that is certainly not the idea behind the notation, the lack of : is not meant to indicate anything about the length for people who have /i:/ there! Yes, the 'de' in decompress is stressable there, so not an apt example. Have edited. Nov 14, 2022 at 0:41
  • note that, per Geoff Lindsey, Standard Southern British FLEECE is actually now typically [ɪi̯] rather than older RP [i:]
    – Tristan
    Nov 14, 2022 at 9:33
  • @Tristan Yes, and has been for many decades now, if Geoff's right. (Geoff was John's PhD student, btw) Nov 14, 2022 at 11:26
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There are three relevant lexical sets here: FLEECE, KIT, and HAPPY. (HAPPY is specifically the last vowel in the word "happy", not the first, since it doesn't appear in monosyllables.)

In the Queen's English (or I suppose the King's English now?), KIT and HAPPY are pronounced with the same vowel (usually written /ɪ/), while FLEECE is separate (usually written /iː/). But in many (most?) British dialects, KIT and HAPPY aren't quite the same; HAPPY is often higher than KIT but shorter than FLEECE. So HAPPY can be transcribed as /i/ to indicate this.

In many American dialects, on the other hand, FLEECE and HAPPY are be identical, so they're both transcribed /i/; the length distinction no longer exists. That's the state of things for my own dialect.

From your confusion, I'm guessing you speak a dialect similar to RP where KIT and HAPPY have the same quality. In which case, you really don't have a separate /i/, only an /ɪ/ in both words.

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    > But in many (most?) British dialects, KIT and HAPPY aren't quite the same; HAPPY is often higher than KIT but shorter than FLEECE. So HAPPY can be transcribed as /i/ to indicate this. <- I don't think this is true, most dialects (including mine) that have HAPPY use the vowel quality of FLEECE also use the vowel length of FLEECE. I don't think there is a single dialect that has a three-way phonemic distinction between these. /i/ was just a shorthand for dictionary writers during the transitional period between Happ/ɪ/ and Happ/iː/ to avoid them having to write both which has gone on too long.
    – Muzer
    Nov 14, 2022 at 10:59
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    Seeing as the items in a minimal pair must have the same stress pattern to qualify as a minimal pair, and happY is an unstressed vowel, a happY/FLEECE minimal pair would have to have a word with an unstressed long tense vowel. You might have difficulty finding one of them in English. // People who have a long vowel for happY would have the "property/proper tea" merger, and would rhyme taxi with Black Sea. What English accent has this feature? Perhaps one where speakers don't consider length phonemic, and could just ignore the colons?
    – Rosie F
    Nov 14, 2022 at 18:36
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    @RosieF What you need with the tea example is a de-accented tea. You can do that like this: It's not fake tea, it's proper tea and It's not fake tea, it's property -- which are, in fact, indistinguishable! Nov 15, 2022 at 1:32
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    @Araucaria-him At least in my dialect (American), the t in "property" is unaspirated, but not in "proper tea", but I realize that's not the point. I think the vowels also contrast in length, though perhaps I've just said it to myself too many times in a row and I'm drawing distinctions that aren't naturally there.
    – brendan
    Nov 15, 2022 at 13:13
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    @Brendan Ah, yes, we don't get flapped /t/ in RP (mostly). How about "You need a Dad bee, a Mum bee and a mumby" or "You need a Dad bee, a mumby and a mum bee" You could find a listener to see if they could tell you which one you're saying! [A mumby could be a person from Mumby, for example. Don't have time to find a really good example, but I'm sure someone will!] Nov 16, 2022 at 15:22
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/i/ and /ɪ/ are standard IPA representations for two different principal vowels, respectively high front unrounded and mid-high front unrounded (some people prefer "close" as opposed to "high".

You can see them on the vowel diagram in this Wikipedia article.

They are most easily demonstrated to English speakers as the vowels in "seat" and "sit". In many varieties of English, a short /i/ barely exists, and people think of it as inherently long (it's nearly always written with a digraph, such as 'ee' or 'ea', or sometimes 'i-e' as in "machine"). But a short /i/ does exist in, for example, some Scottish accents, and is common in many language other than English.

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