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When pronouncing words like "thing", "sing", or any word ending in -ing, I say it and have heard it as "eeng", which would be transcribed as /iŋ/. However, every dictionary I've come across, like Webster's, Oxford, and toPhonetics (I know, not actually a dictionary), transcribe it as /ɪŋ/. I don't think I've ever heard -ing pronounced as "ihng" ('ih' indicates a short vowel as in it), but maybe I'm not listening closely enough.

Is there an explanation as to why it's /ɪŋ/?

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    You pronounce it like theeng and seeng, and you've never heard it pronounced otherwise? I'm in the exact opposite position, I've never heard someone prounounce it like ..ee..
    – TKoL
    May 14 at 11:00
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    @TKoL I have, but basically only when someone is doing a bad racist impression of a Mexican accent. See: most characters in a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon (other than Speedy himself usually). May 14 at 20:38
  • @DarrelHoffman right, I can hear that in my head now. I guess I have heard it before.
    – TKoL
    May 15 at 8:04
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Phonemically1 -ing is always /ɪŋ/. The vowel phoneme2 is decided by linguists to be /ɪ/, though it can be realised in many different ways.

Phonetically3, however, it's realised as [iŋ] in some dialects of English (particularly American); that is to say, the vowel [ɪ] raises to [i] due to the effect of the following velar nasal (nasalisation).

According to The Origins and Development of the English Language by John Algeo (p26):

[I]n the South [USA], the vowels [ɪ] and [ɛ], although distinguished in most environments (such as pit and pet), have merged before nasals. Thus pin and pen are homophones for many Southerners, as are tin and ten, Jim and gem, and ping and the first syllable of penguin. The sound used in the nasal environment is usually [ɪ], though before [ŋ] it may approach [i]. [Emphasis mine]



1. /phonemic transcriptions/ are language specific transcriptions i.e. the way dictionaries transcribe words. /They/ can have [many different realisations, depending on the speaker and accent]

2. ‘A phoneme is a mental image of all the various realisations of one and the same sound.’ (Donka Minkova) For example, the phoneme /t/ is a mental image of many realisations such as [t], [tʰ], [t̚], [ʔ] etc., in some dialects of English. By contrast, if you substituted say b for t it would change the meaning (cf. tall and ball) so we would say that /b/ and /t/ are two distinct ‘phonemes’ in English.

3. [phonetic transcriptions] transcribe actual speech sounds i.e how people speak

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    "Phonetically, however, it's realised as [iŋ] in most dialects of English" What is your source for that claim?
    – Rosie F
    May 13 at 13:21
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    @RosieF: I have no source to back that up. I should've written some dialects.In my own speech, /ɪŋ/ is realised as [iŋ].
    – Void
    May 13 at 13:27
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    @Void Also American here, and I've always pronounced it with /ɪ/. My dialect is an odd mix of Southern and Midwestern (grew up in Alabama and Louisiana, but parents are from Missouri), for reference. Perhaps the /i/ pronunciation is more regional than you think?
    – Hearth
    May 13 at 15:23
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    The US Northeast, as well as the West Coast, lack this phenomenon, in my experience. I can’t recall ever hearing anyone pronounce those words as homophones, nor have I heard -ing pronounced [iŋ]. I haven’t interacted with many people with strong Southern accents though (nor have I interrogated them about how they pronounce pit vs. pet, or sing).
    – KRyan
    May 14 at 2:24
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    Houstonian here. I've always heard it as [iŋ] (or [ɪn] in less formal speech), but never knew until right now that [ɪŋ] is “official”.
    – dan04
    Jun 30 at 21:07
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The short answer is that some people do pronounce the vowel in sing, king, think, zinc etc. as [iŋ], but some people pronounce it as [ɪŋ]. Because there is no possible contrast between [i] and [ɪ] in this context in English, it's hard for most English speakers to hear the difference. A lack of contrast between otherwise contrastive sounds is called "neutralization". Linguists can usually argue that the sound is identified with one phoneme or anther (phonemes, transcribed in slashes, represent the grouping of sounds that count as "the same sound" for the sake of a language's sound system), but it isn't always clear. This appears to be an unclear situation: these words arguably contain the phoneme /i/ for some speakers (like you and some of the authors of posts linked below), but /ɪ/ for others (like me and James K).

Actually, some pronunciations may be in between, and some speakers might hear an in-between sound as the phoneme /ɪ/ while others might hear the same phonetic sound as the phoneme /i/. This also happens for the neutralized high front vowel sound found before /r/ in words like fear, near: some American English speakers think it sounds more like /ɪ/ and others think it sounds more like /i/. See the following post for more information about the near vowel, which I think is a very comparable situation: -eer vowel (accent/dialect variation?)

So while your experience of never hearing [ɪŋ] is not necessarily wrong, it's not highly trustworthy evidence either: some examples that you would hear as [iŋ] might actually contain an in-between sound that another speaker might hear as [ɪŋ]. Furthermore, the English-speaking world is a big place. Personally, I can hardly ever hear a noticeable distinction between the cot vowel [ɑ] and the caught vowel [ɔ] when listening to another American English speaker, but based on research that I have seen, many American English speakers do in fact pronounce these words with distinct vowel sounds: I either do not notice it, or the speakers in my surroundings don't have a distinction, but speakers in other places do. Something similar may apply for you with [ɪŋ] vs. [iŋ].

Some conventions for phonemic transcriptions in dictionaries were based on the pronunciation of specific old accents

Most likely, the explanation for why it is transcribed /ɪŋ/ in dictionaries is because it sounded more like [ɪ] than [i] in the accents spoken by the people who initially developed IPA transcriptions for English. The symbols used in phonemic transcriptions of widely spoken languages with a long history of IPA transcription such as English tend not to be updated unless there is a major reason they need to be updated, like an unpredictable split in the pronunciation of words.

Links

Some previous posts about this topic on Stack Exchange:

Links to blog posts about this topic:

Previous writers on this topic seem to generally associate hearing /iŋ/ as a feature of the West Coast of the United States, but it is far from universal in this area.

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    I was also thinking that the sound is in between.
    – Barmar
    May 13 at 14:20
  • For me it seems like it mostly sounds like /ɪ/ but "rounds off" into /i/ as the /ŋ/ starts. The tongue position appropriate for pronouncing /i/ is "on the way", so the sound emerges. Wish I knew proper terminology for this. May 13 at 19:41
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The vowel sound in "sing" is similar to that in "sit" or "pit", and different (even if you ignore length) from the sound in "seat". So when transcribing using IPA we write /sɪŋ/ /sɪt/ but /siːt/. I don't pronounce it as "seeng". I'm not sure what you mean by ihng. There is no "h" in /ɪ/

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    There are non-IPA pronunciation guides (e.g., pronounce.voanews.com/help-pronunciation-key.php) that use "h" to indicate a "short" vowel sound.
    – chepner
    May 13 at 13:21
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    okay, new one for me. I'm always surprised at dictionary writers who want to re-invent the wheel on pronunciation guides.
    – James K
    May 13 at 17:21
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    @JamesK: Native English speakers, particularly Americans, frequently do not wish to accept the reality that English has far more vowels than the ten-ish ("A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y," plus the long/short distinction) that they were taught about in elementary or primary school. So they often prefer "simple" explanations of how to pronounce words, which in practice means "don't use IPA or other 'funny' symbols."
    – Kevin
    May 14 at 16:23
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The /iŋ/ might be your regional thing if you are used to such pronunciation, although I'd say most standard variations of English pronounce it in fact with an /ɪ/.

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When writers of stories in English wish to telegraph that certain characters are not English natives (and in particular if they are "European", e.g. French, Italian or Spanish), they sometimes use the technique of amending the spelling of certain words so as to emphasise that they are being pronounced in a "foreign" accent. It is the basis of a great deal of low humour, which we Brits consider ourselves past masters at.

One of the techniques is to change the spelling of words ending in "ing" to end them in "eeng".

In short, hearing a speaker use the pronunciation "eeng" is often an indicator that the speaker is not a British native.

There are nuances to this. Accents across Britain vary considerably. For example, I had an English teacher who was Welsh, and retained his Welsh accent well into his 60s. He also pronounced "ing" as "eeng", and also, as is common in a welsh accent (and also certain other regional variants) pronounced the hard "g" at the end.

The London accents, by contrast, are generally known to remove the "g" entirely at the end of "ing" when used as a present continuous (whatever the term is), so you get "singin" (and so on) for "singing".

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