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I am confused with the vowel /ɪ/, vowel of IPA, for the American English. Sometimes it sounds like /i/, 'exact', for example, while at other times it sounds like /e/, 'sit', for example.

It indeed sounds differently, but the vowel is the same? Why is this? And how can I determine which sound I should speak?


To clarify it, I ask the question in another way.

There is some demonstrations of words which the pronunciations is the same, but sound different between BrE an AmE.

  • sit
  • pin
  • bit

So why is this?

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    Are you asking about the sound represented by IPA /ɪ/ or the letter ‹I› (capital 'i') ? The sound /ɪ/ appears in both ‹sit›, pronounced /sɪt/, ‹exact›, ordinarily pronounced /ɪɡˈzækt/), although artificially precise speakers might pronounce ‹exact› with an /ɛ/, thus: /ɛg'zækt/. – StoneyB Jan 19 '16 at 16:34
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    I am a speaker of AmE, as I believe @GoDucks is, and I agree that ‹sit› is never pronounced /sət/. May I ask what gives you the impression that it is? – StoneyB Jan 19 '16 at 17:02
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    @Zachary - the American English version of "sit" at that link sounds nothing like /sət/ to me. The British and American versions at that link sound identical to me except that the American speaker has a higher-pitched voice. Do you hear the difference between "sit" at that page and "set" at the entry for "set" ? – stangdon Jan 19 '16 at 17:20
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    @Era And even "pellow" employs /ɛ/, not /ə/. – StoneyB Jan 19 '16 at 17:22
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    @modulusshift - No, it is distinctly not a dipthong. I think I know what you're talking about - it's kind of stereotypical Texan accent - but it's not the same thing. To me (native NYC speaker), the merged pen/pin sounds so precisely like "pen" that it did not even occur to me it could be anything other than "pen" at first. I wish I could find a good recorded sample, but no joy. – stangdon Jan 19 '16 at 17:36
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The KIT vowel, /ɪ/, which we find in the word sit, and the FLEECE vowel, /i/, which we find in seat have different pronunciations in Southern Standard British English and General American. In Gen Am they are said with the jaw slightly more open than in British English. So a Gen Am /ɪ/ may sound more /e/-like to someone used to British English.

In the Western United states, the KIT vowel changes when it occurs before velar consonants /k, g/ or /ŋ/. We say that this new sound is an allophone of the KIT vowel for these speakers. When people who speak this variety of English have a KIT vowel before a velar consonant it becomes much more like a FLEECE vowel. It is longer and more close.

Because of this when these speakers say, for example the word sing, it will sound a lot like the word seeing to somebody who does not have the same accent. These speakers also have a different vowel in words like bag. Here again we have a velar consonant, /g/. These speakers will use a vowel that sounds like /eɪ/ to other listeners. For people listening, the word bag may seem to rhyme with the word plague.

These different possibilities for the vowels which occur in words like king and kin could be why the Original Poster finds these types of word confusing.

This article here talks about Western US vowels before velar consonants

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    Based on the recent edit by the OP, I think I can understand the OP, but don't know how to explain this. I think in BrE, sit and set sound not as close to each other as in AmE. (It's quite easy for me to (mis)hear AmE Git as get.) – Damkerng T. Jan 21 '16 at 16:39
  • @DamkerngT. seat, sit and set are all further apart and lower in Gen Am than in RP. I think SB might be able to give you a reference. She first told me about this and then I went and researched it. But I can't remember where I went to look ... (I knew about set but not sit or seat) – Araucaria Jan 21 '16 at 23:00
  • @DamkerngT. Yes, this is exactly what I want to ask. – Zachary Wang Jan 24 '16 at 16:10
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Edit: I prefer Araucaria's answer, this isn't as relevant to this question after the edits.

Okay, I don't think you know what IPA is. IPA is meant to relate a single phoneme to a single letter. That's why it exists, to give a written form of pronunciation outside of any one language. If two words are pronounced differently, then they are written differently in IPA. /ɪ/ can't sound like /ə/, ever, that's why they're different letters. The letter "I" of the English alphabet can sound like either, though rarely and only in certain regions like /ə/.

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    I'm afraid this answer is incorrect. IPA symbols don't relate to a "single sound" at all. One symbol may represent several different types of sound. The important thing is they all relate to one phoneme. – Araucaria Jan 21 '16 at 16:24
  • True, I deliberately glossed over subphonemes. I didn't want to muddle the point. – modulusshift Jan 21 '16 at 17:05
  • You seem to have written it always relates a single sound to a single letter - but it actually relates many sounds to a single symbol. Your answer says that the OP doesn't understand the IPA. They seem to understand it fairly well. I think this is a post you should delete very fast, because you don't want to tell someone who understands something perhaps better than you that they don't understand it! – Araucaria Jan 21 '16 at 22:53
  • When I made this answer, the post was saying that /I/ (which isn't even an IPA letter, though the question clearly stated it was) sounded like /ə/ in "sit". The question has been edited since then. I still think that the current question falls afoul of this problem, actually. The way it's written, it sounds like he's comparing three IPA letters now. – modulusshift Jan 21 '16 at 23:09
  • Well, I think it's very difficult to get all the symbols right all the time. I suspect that OP was using a capital 'i' that had bars on the top and bottom in their font, but when it came out in the SE font you can't see the bars so it looks like a small case 'L' . I don't think you really want to keep your answer knowing that they meant a KIT but that the SE software just gives you a straight line that looks like a small case L do you? It's OP's first question. More importantly your answer is not good for people who look this up in the future - unless you edit it. The info is completely wrong. – Araucaria Jan 21 '16 at 23:25

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