Thursday 7 June 2012

happY again

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it clearly confuses a lot of people.

Like many other phoneticians of English, for the past twenty-odd years I have been using the symbol i to represent the weak ‘happY’ vowel used in positions where the FLEECE-KIT distinction, vs. ɪ, is neutralized, and where an older generation of RP speakers used a lax [ɪ] but a younger generation tend to prefer a tense [i].

Veronica Varela asked:

Is there any rule for the use of i and u (neither long nor short?
  euphoria ju ˈfɔːr i‿ə
  bizarre bɪ ˈzɑː bə- ǁ -ˈzɑːr
  behind bi ˈhaɪnd bə-
In the case of bizarre we use ɪ and for behind i. What is the difference?

My reply went along the following lines.

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-.

As far as I know, no one uses a tense vowel in bizarre, whereas in behind and other be- words some people do.

If all this is too complicated to teach, tell people that they should interpret i (without length marks) as meaning the same as ɪ (the KIT vowel). That might make them sound a bit old-fashioned (like me), but nothing worse.

I might have gone on, but didn’t, to discuss the theoretical idea that English has a weak vowel system as well as a strong vowel system; the weak vowels are found exclusively in unstressed positions, and are those vowels which can result from vowel weakening in the lexicon. Pairs such as vary, variety demonstrate that i acts as the weak counterpart of . The strong and weak forms of me, she etc demonstrate that it also acts as the weak counterpart of .

All the above applies, mutatis mutandis, to u (“sitUation”).

Perhaps this is another case of the conflict between on the one hand trying to accurately document the phonetics and phonology of English and on the other hand presenting a convenient simplified distillation for pedagogical EFL purposes.


  1. I've always thought of it as an "abbreviatory convention". The symbol i could stand for either [ɪ], [i] or [iː].

  2. Very occasionally I've heard pointers to -ly as a reduced form of laɪ. Unfortunately I can't remember any details but the odd traditional singer — accent regional but unremembered — with text that feels old-fashioned will, if the melody calls for some stress on the syllable sing something like swi:tlaɪ or bəʊldlaɪ for sweetly, boldly.

    [I seem to remember that the pronunciation went with archaic syntax:
    They sweetly did sing
    We boldly did go

    Much more often, and in a wider range of genres, -y at the end of a noun is sung (or recited) as i:.

    There was a little ship that sailed on the sea
    And the name of the ship was the Golden Vanity

    And they called for their pints of beer and bottle of sherry-y-y-y-y
    To help them over the hill so merry-y-y-y-y LAST SYLLABLE SUSTAINED

    The evening breeze caressed the trees tenderly STRESS ON FINAL SYLLABLE
    The trembling trees embraced the breeze tenderly STRESS ON FINAL SYLLABLE

    When Baby's cries grew hard to bear
    I popped him in the Frigidaire.
    I never would have done so if
    I'd known that he'd be frozen stiff.
    My wife said: 'George, I'm so unhappé!
    Our darling's now completely frappé!

    There was a gorging Jack, and guzzling Jimmy,
    And the youngest he was little Billee.
    Now when they'd got as far as the Equator,
    They'd nothing left but one split pea.

    1. I've found the recording I remember with sweetly — but it's surprisingly complicated. The singers are cousins Ron and Bob from the famous singing Copper family of Sussex. They're singing the entire text together in two-part harmony — just as they learned it by singing along with two older generations of Coppers. The relevant text is at the end:

      Now the robins so red how swiftly they sped
      Thy opened their wide wings and over them spread
      And all the day long in the branches did throng
      They sweetly did whistle and this was the song
      Pretty babes in the wood
      Pretty babes in the wood
      Oh don't you remember those babes in the wood?

      Both sang swɪftli: but the next -ly was different. Ron (bass harmony) sang swi:tli: while Bob (melody line) sang swi:tlaɪ. The latter was either an old family pronunciation that Ron had dropped or it was something Bob had picked up from recording old singers for the BBC. Either way, it seems to have been an interesting relic.

  3. "If all this is too complicated to teach, tell people that they should interpret i (without length marks) as meaning the same as ɪ (the KIT vowel). That might make them sound a bit old-fashioned (like me), but nothing worse."

    Or tell them to interpret i as an unstressed FLEECE vowel and not risk sounding old-fashioned. I assume most EFL learners are youngish and that TEFL professionals are keener to complain that our pronunciation model is old-fashioned than to complain that it's too innovative.

    1. Not every ɪ for the HAPPY vowel sounds old-fashioned. Most people probably don't even notice it unless it's very open, even if they themselves have i(ː).

    2. I'm with Paul here. However many people say final ɪ unnoticed, I'd certainly notice if I tried to say it. And I certainly couldn't teach students to pronounce in a way that I find impossible or ridiculous to do myself.

      My accent is not 100% RP nowadays, and perhaps it never was as close to straight RP as I believed. However, I think final i was in my early boyhood a careful avoidance of the working-class Nottingham final vowel — to escape my mother's wrath. This vowel, I believe, is (or used to be) closer to ɛ.

    3. Wasn't that the vowel Professor Wells transcribed as ɛ̈ in Oh, Tracy!? Which he described as both working-class and ultraposh?

    4. I missed this post and have just found it by using the search engine. Yes, this is the vowel that Professor Wells was referring to, but he states in that post that its use amongst the upper classes is virtually extinct.

      I think that the Professor got the geography slightly wrong. [ɛ] is not used in Leeds, although it is common in places near Leeds such as Sheffield, Manchester and Burnley. Considered David's comment, it must be used in Nottingham as well.

      In Leeds, virtually everyone says [ɪ] regardless of class or age. I wonder how many other places in England are like this.

  4. I've been working on pronuciation for a lot of medical terms, some of which are very challenging (as you might imagine). I was hoping you may have a downloadable resource for your rules as from what I've been reading so far everything is of great quality and it would save me many hours of work if you wouldn't mind sharing? - Some examples of terms I'm currently looking at: Folliculitis, glutaraldehyde, Malaria, mercaptobenzothiazole, methacrylates, methylene-bis-orthochloroaniline, paraphenylene-diamines, tetrachlorophthalic, Angiosarcoma etc..... you get the idea.

  5. I remember being startled back in 1975 by then-candidate Jimmy Carter (1924-) saying "My name is /dʒɪmɪ/ Carter and I'm running for President". I had never consciously heard anyone using lax /ɪ/ in unstressed final position.

  6. What about the vowel in NEAR, FEAR and MIRACLE?
    In LPD we can find for American English: nɪər, fɪər, mɪrəkəl (-ɪk-)
    In MW's Learner's dictionary it's /ˈniɚ/ , /ˈfiɚ/ , /ˈmirɪkəl/.

    It's confusing for foreign learners.

    1. That's dialectal variation within AmE; I happen to belong to the second group. Since there is no phonemic contrast, it doesn't make any difference whether you use a tense or lax vowel.

      "General American" as given in dictionaries is a notional rather than an actual accent. A residual group in the north-central part of the U.S. still speak what was described as "General American" seventy years ago, but the rest of us have moved on to either pre-existing or newly created accents.

    2. I doubt that learners own both dictionaries. I've just now checked the burqa after seeing how AmE is transcribed in LPD. And it says ˈbɜːrkə. No American pronounces the British NURSE vowel and then immediately 'realizes' the /r/ phoneme. So something is wrong there.

    3. @John Cowan

      What are the key feautres of the accent you mention?

    4. Which accent, mine or "GenAm"?

    5. Don't Walter Cronkite and Linda Ellerbee represent the actual and not notional General American?

    6. I alternate; /nɪɚ/ but /nɪrɚ/ and /mɪrəkl/. The rule is to use /ɪr/ if the r is followed by a vowel, so it would be /nɪr/ in near a city.

      I don't know how widespread this is, but I suspect I'm not the only one who does it.

    7. @John

      Sorry, I wasn't clear, I meant "what was described as "General American" seventy years ago".

    8. Votre Altesse: Yes, people can learn even accents that are no longer spoken, as shown by the "original pronunciation" trend in Shakespeare performance. I have a pretty good 15th-century London accent I use sometimes.

      Fr. Jape: It's easiest to characterize it negatively: no caught-cot, wine-whine, hurry-furry mergers; no Northern Cities Shift, no Southernisms; no Canadian Raising, no bad-lad split; CLOTH is THOUGHT not LOT. If you look at the pronunciations in an older AmE dictionary like AHD, you can see it.

    9. The only thing I'm surprised by in that list is no hurry-furry merger.

  7. My weak /i~ɪ/ system is pretty simple:

    [i] is used morpheme-finally
    [ɪ] is used everywhere else

    So everything is in complementary distribution at the level of the morpheme, but I do have the studied/studded minimal pair.

    Studied is /stʌdi#d/
    Studded is /stʌd#ɪd/

    (where # marks the morpheme boundary).

    For a three-way minimal pair, I have Rosa's/Rosie's/roses.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. There seem to be a few differences between British and American happy-tensing. One thing I've noticed is that a British speakers with happy-tensing tend to pronounce "helicopter" as [ˈhɛlikɒptə], which to my knowledge is never heard with [i] in the US - while at the same time they seem disinclined to use [i] in other word-internal cases such as "happiness" and the like.

    1. Thanks to the rule VP identifies, I never tense the i in helicopter.

      Etymologically it's helico + pter. This means that there's no body of cognate semantically-associated words beginning with heli-. This means that there's no sense that there's a morpheme boundary heli#copter. That means that the 'short i' is not morpheme-final — which for VP and for me makes it ɪ not i.

    2. It's been a while since I lived in Britain, but I don't recall many people saying [ˈhɛlikɒptə] -- certainly I would have [ˈhɛlɪkɒptə(r)]

    3. I would have [i] in "happiness", and I would also expect to hear that from most English people with happY-tensing (although, as always, it's possible that my ears are biased by my own phonology).

    4. I have frequently heard anything pronounced ˈɛnəθɪŋ by English people, even the ones who pronounce silly as ˈsɪli. Maybe that's related to what you said about happiness.

    5. I have also heard helicopter pronounced ˈhɛlikɒptə by the English, so you're not alone there.

    6. For people who have copter 'helicopter', I'd expect a morpheme boundary heli#copter, even though heli- is a cranberry morph in this context. (For me the short form is chopper.)

  9. vp/David: do you ever have lax [ɪ] before a vowel? I wouldn't think that all the words with LPD i before a vowel have a morpheme boundary.

    I have i lax before a consonant and tense before a vowel, regardless, I think, of the morphology. So "happiness", "happily" and "Happy Christmas" are lax, while "happier" and "Happy Easter" are tense. I can also feel this when counting "47, 48, 49" (lax, tense, lax). Before a pause, it seems to me that the sound is intermediate, but more like the lax one than the tense one.

    On the other hand, I can't think of anything in my accent which justifies treating LPD u as distinct from the GOOSE vowel.

    1. You certainly don't say ˈɪnflʉːəns, do you?

    2. I meant in a phonological sense. The vowel isn't long in that environment but I don't see why it can't be regarded as the same phoneme as GOOSE.

    3. vp/David: do you ever have lax [ɪ] before a vowel?

      I don't, as far as I can tell.

      So "happiness", "happily" and "Happy Christmas" are lax, while "happier" and "Happy Easter" are tense.

      I have [i] in all of those, except that I have [ɪ] in "happily" (and in all -ily adverbs). I guess that is an exception to the "morpheme-final [i]" rule I announced earlier. (Maybe it's to avoid having two weak [i]s in successive syllables?)

    4. JHJ

      vp's rule is my default mode, but I think I feel a slight pressure to follow your rule. I suspect it's the effect of speed and formulaicity, to coin a word.

      Happy Christmas is something you gabble as a unit because it's the appropriate noise to make. I don't think I could say a considered I hope you have a really hæpɪ Christmas — it would have to be hæpi.

      47, 48, 49 is a rigmarole quite unlike, say, forty-seven plums, forty-eight apples and forty-nine oranges.

      Funnily enough, I don't entirely share your feeling for happier. I'm non-rhotic so the lettER vowel is indeed a vowel for me. And I suspect I occasionally say ier as ɪə.

    5. Though the other mentions words all have i for me, I have a schwa in happily, so I'm really surprised that some people would have i. When I say that, it sounds like I'm creating a word out of happy + -ly, rather than using the existing relatively common word happily.

  10. David Crosbie (regarding -ly pronounced as laɪ):
    I remember at school singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor? ... ˈɜːlaɪ in the morning."

  11. Is this blog still active? I just stumbled on it. On the issue of "happY tensing" aka "happy brightening", Alexander John Ellis (a product of Shrewsbury School, Brighton, Eton, and Cambridge, and one of the best known phoneticians of the 19th century) apparently heard it in the mid 19th-century. Writing in the Phonotypic Journal of 1846, p. 305-308, he comments that in phonotypy he used to spell "pity" with the equivalent of IPA /pɪti/ but had since changed his mind to write the equivalent of /pɪtɪ/.

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