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Subject: English Pronunciation: /ai/ vs / ɪ/ Word Initially
Question:
I am working as an English language assistant and one of my students asked why in English we sometimes pronounce the I in word initial position as /ai/ as in ''itinerary'' and sometimes as /I/ as in ''interesting''? I could not determine a solid rule and was hoping someone may be able to help.

Thank you





Reply:
Norma,

The reason for those pronunciations goes back to a complex set of changes in the pronunciation of English called the Great Vowel Shift, which took place roughly from about 1400 to about 1600, give or take a century at either end. Before this set of changes took place, words like ''line'' and ''mine'' sounded more like ''lean'' and ''mean'', and ''lean'' and ''mean'' sounded different. By the end of the period, what we call long vowels sounded rather more like they sound today, although not completely. That, incidentally, is why our letter names have different vowel sounds from the corresponding letter names in any other European language.

Now, why the /ai/ in ''itinerary'' and not in ''interesting''? The initial in ''itinerary'' is in an open syllable. That is, the /t/ belongs to the next syllable. And the initial has some stress. When occurs in stressed open syllables in English today, it is usually pronounced /ai/. In ''interesting'', however, the syllable containing the /i/ is closed, ending in /n/. In closed syllables we have a tendency towards short vowels, so the is pronounced as /I/. This also accounts for the long i in Italian, Iraq, Iran, and Irish.

Herb Stahlke
Ball State University





Reply From: Herbert Frederic Stahlke     click here to access email
Date: Dec-02-2003
Other Replies:
  1. Re: English Pronunciation:=?ISO-8859-1?Q?/ai/_vs__/_=C9?==?ISO-8859-1?Q?=AA/_Word_Initi?=ally   R. Larry Trask    (Dec-06-2003)
  2. Re: English Pronunciation: /ai/ vs / ɪ/ Word Initially   Geoffrey Sampson    (Dec-03-2003)
  3. Re: English Pronunciation: /ai/ vs / ɪ/ Word Initially   Anthea Fraser Gupta    (Dec-03-2003)

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