Thursday 17 September 2009

weak ɪ

Giuseppe Macario wrote
Although /'pɜ:fɪkt/ and /'ba:skɪt/ is what I have found in my British
dictionaries, I get the impression that the vowel pronounced by most
native speakers of English, no matter where they live, is not the /ɪ/.
The first vowel in /ɪk'spres/ confuses me, too. Are my doubts

I think the point here is that English has two separate vowel systems, the strong system and the weak system. The weak vowels are much less tightly defined than the stressed ones. Although people equate the weak vowel of 'perfect' and 'basket' with /ɪ/, it may vary towards [ə] more than a stressed /ɪ/ would.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English uses a special double-decker symbol to represent a weak vowel that may be [ɪ] or [ə] or something intermediate between them (see picture).
The word perfect is a special case, because in this word some speakers do not weaken the unstressed vowel, but keep it as /e/ (as in the corresponding verb, /pəˈfekt/, where the vowel in question is stressed and therefore strong).
Nevertheless, my advice to Giuseppe is that he can safely treat the unstressed vowels in perfect (noun), basket, and similar words as being just like /ɪ/ (as in KIT). That’s how I believe I pronounce that vowel myself, and that’s what I hear millions of other people say.
A note of warning: Italian learners often have trouble perceiving and making the difference between English /iː/ (FLEECE) and /ɪ/ (KIT). The unstressed vowel we are discussing is certainly not like English /iː/.


  1. Speaking from an American perspective, I agree entirely with Professor Wells. I would add only that you would be unlikely to encounter [ˈpɜ˞fɛkt] in the US, at least in my experience. [ˈpɜ˞fɪkt] would be the norm.

  2. Dear friends, what should I do in order to see your phonetic symbols in my computer? Thanks.

  3. Dear Anonymous: If you use Firefox, change the character encoding of your browser to UTF-8 and see what happens.

  4. I'd identify the unstressed vowels in both "perfect" and "express" with the DRESS vowel, but that in "basket" with /ɪ/ (but with a different first vowel from the dictionary pronunciation given: /'baskɪt/).

    (Northern England)

  5. There are definitely many people who use a strong DRESS vowel at the start of "express".

  6. Thank you very much, Kraut. I'll follow your instructions.

  7. It might be worth remembering schwa [ə], schwi [ᵻ], and schwu [ᵿ]; these symbols are used by the OED's editors, and in my own work on Cornish; they're not sanctioned (is that the word?) by the IPA.

  8. Schwa and its allophones are shadow-vowels, apperaing only in unstressed syllable next to a stressed one as a shadow next to a lighted object.
    Valdas Banaitis from Lithua

  9. I started using the terms schwu, schwa and schwi in 1998 while teaching English sound kit to 10-years-olds at primary school. I presented them like shadows under water on my mnemonic model of a vowel boat with di- and triphthongs on the sail-mast,

  10. 15 years ago it my pocket booklet appeared
    "Introduction to English graphopedy, phono-pedy and spelling ABC-tree" for Lithuanian children.

  11. On March 11, 2005 at London Esperanto cub T met JCWells in order to consult him, but I was unaware it was his birthday... But I was lucky to contact Piers Messum some years later.
    Valdas Banaitis


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