Vowel /ɪ/ phoneme (short vowel)
The vowel /ɪ/ is the short or lax vowel as in words like fish and bit. Positionally, it is a front high vowel, which occurs in a number of other languages. The correct International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol /ɪ/, i.e. a small capital letter i with serifs on both ends of the symbol (not an Arial or Sans Serif font style). Learners may confuse it with the long high vowel /i/ as in beat. In this article, slash marks like /ɪ/ indicate a phoneme, while angled brackets like <ɪ> indicate a letter or spelling, and square brackets like [ɪ] indicate a precise phonetic transcription, e.g. indicating a phonetic variant of a sound.
- 1 Linguistic description
- 2 Practice materials and activities
- 3 More minimal pairs
- 4 Notes
1 Linguistic description
The vowel /ɪ/ is not just a shortened version of /i/, but it is a qualitatively different vowel altogether.
- It is a high front vowel, meaning that the tongue blade and tip are relatively high in the mouth. The locus of the vowel is the front of the mouth above the tongue blade and tongue tip. More precisely, it is a near-close and near-front, while the long vowel /i/ as in beat is the true and fully high and fully front vowel.
- In English it is a short vowel, while /i/ is long. However, the crucial difference between /ɪ/ and /i/ is that /i/ is tense, while /ɪ/ is lax, so /ɪ/ is primarily a lax vowel. The tongue is essentially a muscle, and for /i/ it tenses, making the tongue blade and tip fully high and front, and making the vowel longer in duration. For /ɪ/ the tongue muscle is relaxed, making the vowel shorter. The laxness also affects the tongue position, so that the tongue is not raised as high and is not fully protruded as for /i/. Thus, the tongue is positioned not quite as high or forward as /i/; the vowel is slightly lowered and mid-centralized (drawn somewhat toward the center of the mouth) for /ɪ/.
- The vowel /ɪ/ is unrounded, i.e., the lips are spread open, not rounded (though this is not a concern for most teachers, as front vowels in English are all unrounded, and tend to be unrounded by default in other languages).
Until 1989, the IPA allowed for an alternate symbol for this sound, the symbol <ɩ>, which is no longer an IPA symbol, though a few texts may still use it.
As a vowel, the glottis (vocal cords) vibrate, producing a fundamental frequency (F0), which provides the basic intonation of the voice, particularly the vowels and voiced consonants. As the F0 bounces around the vocal cavity, other harmonic frequencies are produced, including the so-called F1 and F2, which are responsible for primary vowel quality.
1.1 Cross-linguistic comparison
This vowel is fairly common in the world's languages, and is a common phoneme in various European languages. But it can pose difficulty for those whose first language (L1) lacks this vowel, such as East Asian learners, as various East Asian languages lack this vowel.
1.2 Teaching /ɪ/ production
Again, it is important to realize that /ɪ/ is not just a shortened version of /i/, but it is a qualitatively different vowel altogether, as the tongue tensing and position are different. The main distinction has to do with muscular tenseness in the tongue; the long vowel is actually tensed, while the short vowel is relaxed, which slightly alters the tongue position; for the lax vowel, the tongue is slightly lower and not so strongly fronted – slightly more toward the center of the mouth, but still front. Students from an L1 without this vowel will confuse it with /i/ in their listening and pronunciation.
In teaching to produce it, students should not just learn to clip the long /i/ vowel short. They need to learn to relax the tongue to modify the tongue position. One could have students to pretend that the tongue is numb, e.g., due to cold weather, or from having had an anesthetic shot or medication for the tongue from a dentist.
Some dictionaries and learner materials can cause confusion. The long vowel /i/ can also be indicated with a colon to specify the long vowel, as in /i:/; this may be helpful for learners, but this is not really necessary for English, as the /i/ sound is naturally longer and tensed. Because /i/ is long and tensed, it has a slight off-glide, and may also be written as /iy/ in some texts. The lax vowel should not be indicated with /i/ as some dictionaries published in Korea do, where the lax vowel is written incorrectly as /i/ and the tensed vowel as /i:/.
2 Practice materials and activities
Minimal pairs, which contrast a target sound with a sound that is a separate phoneme, are typical starting points for production and practice activities, particularly comparing /ɪ/ and /i/. These sounds can be contrasted with each other in minimal pair contrasts in syllable-initial or word-initial position, and in medial position (middle of a word). The lax vowel does not generally occur in word-final position. For more on types of minimal pairs activities to train listeners to discern and produce sounds, see the following.
- Pronunciation: Listening exercises
- Pronunciation: Production exercises
- Pronunciation: Controlled activities
- Pronunciation: Interactive activities
2.1 Basic practice minimal pairs
Here are a few sample word pairs contrasting /ɪ/ and /i/.
| scissors |
2.2 Minimal pair sentences
| 1a. How much did the meat cost?
2a. She always takes the list.
| 1b. How much did the mitt cost? |
2b. She always takes the least.
2.3 Internal minimal pair sentences
- Don’t sit on that seat.
- He’ll climb the hill.
- We’ll go if you will.
- He’s eating his dinner.
- He thinks potato chips are cheap.
- I feel we can fill the position.
- The ship is taking the sheep to market.
- It’s difficult to climb hills in high heels.
- These shoes don’t fit his feet.
- The field is filled with flowers.
- They picked Tim for the team.
- Please beat the sweet cream.
- The heat wave will hit the city.
- Jean has been cooking beans.
- His pet eel is still ill.
- At least my list is finished.
- Is he at ease on skis?
- Take a dip in the deep water.
2.4 Practice sentences
- This jalapeño weener is the winner of the hot dog contest.
- When the heat hits fifty degrees, the sauna is not fit for any feats of physical endurance.
- In scholarly debates, you can rip an article, and reap the benefits if you have a better idea.
- Caesar always misplaces his scissors. Where are Caesar’s scissors? He’s so ticked - I think Caesar is going to have a seizure over his scissors.
- Don’t you think Gene drinks too much gin? He keeps tripping, and bumping into things.
- Some shifty-looking foxes were spying the sixteen succulent chickens in the steel cage behind the ash trees.
- Phil cannot feel any pain, thanks to a swimming accident. He was stung by a bunch of electric eels – the eels made him ill, and damaged his nerves. So Phil has no feeling of pain.
- One oval is an ellipsis, but two of them are ellipses; you can have one neurosis, or two neuroses if you’re really in distress. If you’re really out of touch, you have a psychosis; two psychoses, and you’re really in a mess.
- This initial study examined risk factors for risky accidents due to itchy shins or unfit feet. Shin problems can make our patients skid and slip in their hospital slippers. Patients should sit or walk, not trip and slip. So we will suggest six tips for this. Our next studies will investigate risk factors for cysts of thin lips and thick hips.
- In a case study of a fifty-six year-old mental patient, we asked, what deeds did he do to his liver, besides sipping too much gin? Why does he like to lick leeks and pick peppers? Why has he beaten and bitten his lips? Why does he sit still all day, sipping skim milk? What is the reason for this silly behavior? Why is he so cynical? Is this behavior one neurosis, or a bit of two different neuroses?
(Author: Kent Lee)
2.5 Limericks and tongue twisters
- I wish you were a fish in my dish.
- If two witches watch two watches, which witch would watch which watch?
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
A limerick tongue twister:
There once was a fisherman named Fisher,
Who fished for some fish in a fissure.
Till a fish with a grin,
Pulled the fisherman in.
And now they’re fishing the fissure for Fisher.
2.6 More practice with -ism words
Words ending in the suffix -ism may be interesting for learning or practice. Some of these are eponyms, or words derived from a person's name, such as Marxism.
| narcissism |
3 More minimal pairs
| antique antic
| freesia frizzier
| mead mid
| skeet skit |
- A limerick is a cute type of poem (named for the city of Limerick, Ireland), with an A-A-B-B-A rhyme scheme. Note the contrast of ‘Fisher’ /fɪʃər/ and ‘fissure’ /fɪʃyər/ or /fɪʃyʊr/. A fissure is a narrow opening in the ground.