I'm trying to refine my spoken English from scratch, and one of the biggest issue for me are the pairs of vowels: tense /i/ and lax /I/. I really can't tell the difference between them. I know that /i/ sounds longer than /I/.

So what the key difference between it and eat? And maybe even eight and ate? How do you handle this issue?

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  • For reference, the following are distinct in English: “Who would know aught of art, must learn, act, then take his ease”. For the last two, 'it' is mid-upper front, but 'eat' is upper front followed by the glide /j/. 'eight' and 'ate' are identical to the vowel in 'take' – Mitch Aug 4 at 20:26
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    In my dialect, and every other one I know of, eight and ate are homonyms. – The Photon Aug 4 at 21:41
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    @Mitch Not necessarily so: some speakers of BrE pronounce ate as et while they would indeed sound eight as in take. – JeremyC Aug 4 at 21:54
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    @JeremyC While questioners on ELL may be curious about diffferences among dialects, the usual answer is about the most common varieties GenAmE and BrE, where the two words are identical an both varieties. – Mitch Aug 4 at 22:03
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    @Mitch Your statistical evidence about most common varieties? I am a native speaker of BrE with what is known as the RP accent, which is not uncommon. In that accent the words are pronounced as I have said. – JeremyC Aug 4 at 22:07
up vote 3 down vote accepted

First things first, vowel pronunciation in English varies widely between dialects. I'm going to answer as a native speaker from the US west coast.

Also first things first, eight and ate are homonyms, both phonemically as /et/. it is /ɪt/. eat is /it/.

However, the actual pronunciation of these words varies considerably depending on the surrounding words in the phrase. Let's assume the words are pronounced in isolation. Due to the word-initial vowel, they will be pronounced starting with a glottal stop [ʔ]. Due to the final unvoiced consonant /t/, they will be pronounced with a very short-duration vowel. (I'm using "short" to refer to the duration only.) And the final /t/ will also be pronounced as glottal stop [ʔ]. So the pronunciation will be [ʔĕʲʔ], [ʔɪ̆ʔ], and [ʔĭʔ].

As a result of the short-duration vowels and the glottal stops, these words provide a very difficult environment for distinguishing the vowels /e/, /ɪ/ and /i/. I'd recommend you first become expert in distinguishing these three vowels in words where the vowels are easier to hear, such as made, mid, mead, phonemically /med/, /mɪd/, /mid/, pronounced [meʲːd], [mɪd], [miːd], or sane, sin, seen, phonemically /sen/, /sɪn/, /sin/, pronounced [sẽʲːn], [sɪ̃n], [sĩːn].

All that said, the actual difference between these three vowels is in tongue positions resulting in different sounds. For /e/, the tongue starts in a high-mid front position and moves toward a high front position. For /ɪ/, the tongue starts in a near-high near-front position and may move toward a central position. For /i/, the tongue stays in a high front position.

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