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Front high vowels: /i/ vs /ɪ/

Front high vowels: /i/ vs /ɪ/ 

English has two front, high vowels: /i/ and /ɪ/. They are produced at the front part of the tongue. The vowel /i/ is made with the highest tongue elevation, and so the mouth is almost closed without lips touching each other. English natives call the vowel /i/ the long-E sound. It is the most frontal vowel, making it a tense vowel.

The other front, high vowel /ɪ/ is made with the front part of the tongue lowered slightly but not quite to the mid position. The mouth is slightly open. So /ɪ/ is called the mid-high front vowel. Also, the vowel is made slightly towards the central part of the mouth, making it a lax vowel. 

Being able to pronounce /i/ and /ɪ/ correctly is very important since there are many pairable words that sound the same except for the vowel sounds. And some of these include swear words: bitch vs beach; piss vs peace; shit vs sheet. Non-native speakers may have experienced saying something like “I like to go to the bitch,” “I hope for world piss,” and “Where can I buy a bedshit?” The correct pronunciations are these:

I like to go to the beach

I hope for world peace

Where can I buy a bedsheet?

As stated earlier, the main distinction between /i/ and /ɪ/ is tenseness. /i/ is a tense vowel. To produce this tense /i/ sound, slightly draw the lips back and raise the back of the tongue. By contrast, /ɪ/ is a lax vowel. To produce the /ɪ/ sound, the tongue is high, but the rest of the vocal tract is relaxed. Just let the air come out from the lungs. The mouth is more open for /ɪ/. Let’s begin with words with these phonemes.

/i/ words

Several different letter combinations can make the tense /i/ sound. We categorize words with the /i/ sound by their letter combinations.

 with the letters "ea": 

beach, bead, beat, bleach, breathe, cheat, clean, cream, creature, deal, dream, each, eagle, easy, eat, heal, heat, increase (noun), increase (verb), jeans, leader, leaf, lean, leave, meal, mean, meat, pea, peach, peak, please, reach, read, repeat, reason, reveal, scream, sea, seal, seat, steal, steam, stream, teach, team, treat, weak

 with the letters "ee": 

agree, between, keep, feel, feet, fleece, free, meet, need, see, seem, street, week, apogee, bumblebee, employee, honeybee, jubilee, Lee, manatee, pedigree, refugee

 with the letter "e":

even, region, theme, complete

 with the letters "ie": 

achieve, believe, brief, chief, field, piece

 with the letter "i": 

police, Luis, Clarice

 with the letters "eo": 


/ɪ/ words

These are words with the lax, /ɪ/ sound.

 with the letter "i": 

begin, did, in, it, is, his, him, interest, kit, little, sit, six, Swiss, this, will, with

 with the letter "y": 

crystal, hymn, physics, rhythm, symbol, symmetry, symptom, typical

 with the letter "u": 

busy, business

 with the letter "o": 


/ɪ/ vs /i/ minimal pairs

These are minimal pair words for /ɪ/ vs /i/. The first word of each pair has the lax /ɪ/ and the second word has the tense /i/ sound.

bit, beat

bitch, beach

bin, bean

bid, bead

biz, bees

chick, cheek

chit, cheat

chip, cheap

did, deed

dip, deep

fist, feast

fill, feel

fit, feet

gin, gene

grid, greed

grin, green

hid, heed

hill, he’ll

hit, heat

his, he’s

hip, heap

ill, eel

is, ease

it, eat

itch, each

kid, keyed

kip, keep

knit, neat

lick, leak

lip, leap

mill, meal

pick, peek

piss, piece 

piss, peace

pitch, peach

pill, peel

risen, reason

sit, seat

slip, sleep

still, steal

shit, sheet

sick, seek

sin, scene

sin, seen

still, steel

sill, seal

sim, seem

skid, skied

skim, scheme

till, teal

tin, teen

/i/ vs /ɪ/ in sentences

The following sentences have words with the tense /i/ sound:

Please leave the scene after you each eat.

There are heaps of eels swimming deep at the beach.

These pieces are cheap, so they leak.

The teen peeled a heap of peaches for her meal.

He was seen stealing a sheet.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, 

But I have promises to keep, 

And miles to go before I sleep

Row, row, row, your boat Gently down the stream 

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily Life is but a dream

The following sentences have the /ɪ/ sound:

Fill it with chips

A tick bit the kid, making him ill.

I am itching to lick the icicle.

I will fill the tin with pills.

The dill on the hill could fill a whole bin. 

The following sentences have both sounds:

I grin when I find green beans in the sale bin.

(grin vs green, bin vs bean)

This chip is delicious and cheap. Eat it.

(chip vs cheap, it vs eat)

I need to sit in the seat, because my feet do not fit in these shoes.

(sit vs seat, fit vs feet)

We each had an itch to take a dip in the deep sea.

(itch  vs each, dip vs deep)