LINGUIST List 13.2053

Thu Aug 8 2002

Sum: Tense and Lax i

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Carol L. Tenny, Tense and lax i

Message 1: Tense and lax i

Date: Tue, 6 Aug 2002 20:14:44 -0400 (EDT)
From: Carol L. Tenny <>
Subject: Tense and lax i

Sum: Tense and lax i

Quite a few months ago (Linguist 13.236) I posted this question about
tense and lax i:

 I discovered to my surprise today that my Intro Linguistics students
 overwhelmingly pronounce the vowel in the second syllable of words like
 "lining" and "something" with a lax i (like in "pill"), while I always
 pronounced it with a tense i, like in "ring". Is there some dialectal
 variation I don't know about here? or am I crazy?

 Of course this is Pittsburgh where the lax i has many conquests, where
 "Steeler" is pronounced like "still" rather than "kneel". But they weren't
 all Pittsburghers.

 I would welcome any insights.

 Carol Tenny


Thanks to the many people who responded and apologies for the long hiatus
between posting the question and the answers.

I have posted the replies I received below. I tried to group them into
distinct categories, but would up quite baffled. There was
overwhelming agreement that the lax vowel was the common, attested
vowel, and was to be expected. There were a few who said their
pronunciation was similar to mine. Some said I must be mistaken about
what vowel I use. I might indeed; I freely confess to being
phonetically-challenged, although I am sure I do not use the same
vowel in 'sin' and 'sing'. Some replies gave me quite interesting
insights into dialectal variation in English, which I shall entertain
my Intro students with subsequently; they always seem to relate better
to linguistics when they see how it applies to what is right around
them.There were other entertaining comments as well. I share them all
with you below:

	From: Benjamin Bruening <brueningUDel.Edu>

 Dear Carol,

 Since I pronounce this vowel like you do, I was very surprised in
 TA-ing a "Dialects of English" class at Harvard to find that all the
 students and the professor pronounced it as a lax vowel, and in fact
 the readings that we were using gave the "official" phonetic
 transcription of the suffix -ing as a lax vowel. I think that you
 and I are in the minority (I'm from Utah, but I haven't checked with
 family members to see how they pronounce it; it is interesting that
 Utah is like Pittsburgh in merging tense and lax vowels before /l/:
 hill and heel are homonyms for me, as are all such pairs, so there
 can't be any relation between -ing and the merger of these vowels in
 such contexts).



 Benjamin Bruening
 Dept of Linguistics
 University of Delaware
 Newark, DE 19711
 (302) 831-4096


	 From: Bart Mathias <>
 This is probably not related (since you are interested in an unaccented
 syllable), but it reminds me of a poll I took of the small audience (20?)
 at my first graduate paper presentation in 1962. I wanted to know whether
 people felt they pronounced "king" with the vowel of "kin," as I had seen
 it transcribed, or with the vowel I felt I used, that of "keen." I also
 checked whether they thought the vowels in "leg" and "vague" were the
 same, and if so, was it the vowel of "wreck" or "rake." The
 majority went with
 "kin" and "wreck," and when I mentioned that I like "keen" and "rake,"
 they wanted to know if I was Mexican or something. (My formative years were
 California, Bay Area, with a mother of Oregonian parents and an upstate
 New York father.)

 As you no doubt know (in later years I saw this discussed in the
 literature once or twice), there can't be a /I/ ~= /i(y)/ distinction 
 before /N/ in English. My survey was related to what I see as analogous
 phenomena in Old Japanese.

 Bart Mathias


	 From: "A.F. GUPTA" <engafgARTS-01.NOVELL.LEEDS.AC.UK>

 This one is quite baffling to a Brit!

 In most varieties of English English there is a distinction in
 stressed syllables between the long tense vowel of FLEECE and
 the short lax vowel of KIT (I'm using the lexical sets of Wells 1982).
 [I'll use [i:] and [I] to represent them here]. 'Pill' and 'ring' are both
 (=KIT). I am not myself familiar with any variety that puts 'pill' and
 'ring' in different lexical sets -- BTW do you have a minimal pair for
 that distinction???

 In unstressed syllables things are more complicated in British

 Some dialects distinguishing [I] from schwa in places where other
 dialects don't distinguish them, e.g.

 Lennon (schwa)

 Lenin (schwa for some, [I] for some)

 I don't know if this is an added complication in Pittsburgh to the i/I

 In the happY lexical set (i.e. the second syllable of 'happy'), some
 dialects have a lax [I] and some a tense [i] (though not long -- it's
 arguable whether it's phonemically the same as the FLEECE
 vowel). This can lead some people having a distinction between:

 taxis -- tense [i]

 taxes -- lax [I]

 My impression from the students I introduce to phonetics is that
 this is now the norm among younger people from a wide variety of
 regions. Wells (Vol I: 165f, 257) describes it as a British innovation
 (he calls it 'happY tensing', and sees it as an increasing tendency
 throughout the English-speaking world. He says it's usual in
 Southern Hemisphere varieties and quotes Kenyon attesting it in
 the US in 1958, though he says that conservative US varieties have
 the lax [I].

 I wouldn't expect 'linING' to be in with 'happY' though -- and I'm
 surprised you EXPECT a tense vowel in it. Could you be the one
 who has taken tensing very far???


 Anthea Fraser GUPTA :
 School of English
 University of Leeds


	From: Marc Picard <>

 Your students belong to the overwhelming majority of anglophones who
 pronounce -ing with a lax /I/. I've been teaching English phonetics ever
 since the Flood and I don't recall ever having heard any of my students
 pronounce words like keen and king with the same vowel. I think if you
 check various textbooks and dictionaries (such as Wells' Pronunciation
 Dictionary or Jones' English Pronouncing Dictionary) that the vowel in
 -ing, whether stressed or not, is inevitably transcribed with the
 semi-high front vowel.

 Marc Picard


	From: (George Aubin)

 You might want to check out page 87 of the 3rd edition (1993) of
 Ladefoged's _A Course in Phonetics_, where he maintains that the lax
 [I] is used in American English before velar nasals, as you seem to
 have found with your students. Ladefoged doesn't mention anything
 about dialectical variation here, although, as with most things, as
 you suggest, I would not be surprised to find some S

 George F. Aubin


	From: Daniel Currie Hall <>

 Dear Dr. Tenny,

 As for your second query, I can report that I have a lax [I] in the -ing
 of "lining" and "something," and, for that matter, in "ring." Dunno how
 helpful this is, since I don't actually speak any identifiable dialect of
 English, but perhaps some larger pattern will emerge from the responses
 you collect....

 Best regards,

 Daniel Hall
 Department of Linguistics
 University of Toronto

	 From: "Richard Laurent" <>

 Carol, Let's use IPA to disambiguate here. For me at least, there
is no distinction between the vowels in pill [pIl] and ring [rIN]
(where N = eng). Though of course these are both slightly colored by
phonetic environment, the vowel [I] prevails in both. Otherwise, you
must have an extremely sensitive ear. However, your description makes
it sound as though locals are saying "Stiller" [stIlr] (where  =
schwa) where the literary dialect has "Steeler [stilr]. By "tense
i," then, you must mean [i] as in Engl. feel, keen. By "lax i," you
must mean [I], as in Engl. fit, kin. Now there's a distinction worth
teaching. Any contrast between the vowels in pill and ring sounds like
a distinction without a difference. You don't really pronounce ring
"reeng" [riN], do you?
 Hope this helps.

 Richard Laurent


	From: "Kurt S. Godden" <>

 I also universally pronounce the progressive suffix -ing with a lax i.
 Always have. I grew up in Iowa, but for the last almost 30 years have
 lived in Kansas, Illinois, and Michigan. (Now in Joisey, by the way.)

 -Kurt Godden
 Advanced Technology Labs
 Lockheed Martin
 Camden, NJ

	From: Laurie Bauer <>

 I remember being amazed when some of my students insisted that they
 used /i:/ before eng, since this was clearly contrary to the
 generalisation that the only vowels which can occur before an eng are
 lax. And in fact, I still do not really believe it for most of them
 -- although it is a closer vowel than in a word like _thin_, it
 doesn't have the same range of diaphonic variation as the vowel in
 _seen_. So your Pittsburg students seem very sensible to me, doing in
 unstressed syllables as they do in stressed syllables. Btw, I have an
 English accent, and my students are News Zealanders -- so this isn't
 some local Pittsburg phenomenon!

 Laurie Bauer

 Professor of Linguistics
 School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
 Victoria University of Wellington
 PO Box 600
 New Zealand

	From: "Allan C. Wechsler" <>

 I'm not sure I understand your query. I do not detect any difference
 in my own pronuciation of the last vowel in lining [lajnIN],
 something [s^mTIN], or ring [rIN], (with a glide r, not the IPA
 trill). By 'tense i' do you mean the vowel of 'mean' [mijn]? I
 don't think I can ever put that vowel before a word-final [N]. I
 grew up in suburban Detroit.

	From: Larry Trask <>

 OK; I'm baffled. As far as I know, both 'ring' and 'pill' have the lax /i/
 for all speakers. Are you saying that you pronounce the first as "reeng",
 with a tense /i:/? If so, this is a new one on me.

 I come from the Olean area, on the NY state line just north of Pittsburgh,
 and I have a little experience of Pittsburgh speech. I remember noticing
 the pronunciation of 'greasy' as "grea[z]y", and the merger of the vowels
 of 'cot' and 'caught', both of these being well-documented features of
 western Pennsylvania. But I don't recall noticing anything like "reeng".
 Is this a Pittsburgh feature? You seem to be suggesting that it is not.

 >From your remarks, I gather that you have a general rule that the velar
 nasal must be preceded by tense /i:/, and never by lax /i/, even when the
 vowel is unstressed. If so, this is completely new to me: I've never
 bumped into it before. But my acquaintance with regional American
 varieties is less than comprehensive.

 Larry Trask
 University of Sussex
 Brighton BN1 9QH


	 From: "Richard A. Wright" <>

It's a dialectal from the West? All of my students are
amazed that even in words like "ring" and "king" I pronounce "ing"
with a (slightly raised) lax vowel. Most transcriptions that I've seen
in fact transcribe it as having a small cap I. So your students may
not be the outlier, you might.

 Richard Wright, Assistant Professor
 University of Washington
 Department of Linguistics
 Box 354340
 Seattle, WA 98195-4340


	 From: "Todd O'Bryan" <>

 I think I pronounce "ring" with lax-i (i.e., IPA small capital i), but
 it's kind of hard to tell because of the coloring of both the velar
 nasal and the r. In fact it's hard for me to hear the difference between
 the two even when I concentrate hard to make it.

 Maybe they're doing barred-i in that position. I find that a lot of my
 lax vowels (especially before or after coronals, but also somewhat in
 -ing verbs) are barred-i's where other people have schwas. I also find
 that students often think these are small cap i's.



	 From: "Clodfelder, Katri" <>

 Hi Carol,

Regarding the other problem, as a native of Southern Indiana, I find
myself fighting to say Steelers rather than Stillers. But since we
have so many other speaking issues (arn instead of iron, tar instead
of tire, code instead of cold, row instead of roll, and the list goes
on and on). Glad to know that there's one area where we don't stand

 Katri A. Clodfelder
 (grad student in computational linguistics at IU-Bloomington


	From: Ghil`ad ZUCKERMANN <>


 in singaporean english there is usually no difference between shit and
 sheet / manly bitch and Manly Beach. i shall skip the jokes...

 with very best wishes,

 ghil`ad zuckermann
	 From: Raphael Mercado HBA <>

 2) what surprises me is that you say "ring" with the same vowel as in
 "kneel". for me--i'm from toronto, canada--these words have two different
 vowels. i say "ring", "lining" and "something" with a lax /I/ in front of
 the "-ng". i believe that this pronounciation is widespread, found in
 many different dialects of english.


 "Sidney Wood" <>

I grew up in SE England and have lax i in words like "something" and
find a tense i there is strange. So who's the odd one out when you
compare two different instances? In the old days a supposed standard
pronunciation would be the norm and everyone else deviant, by
definition, which isn't satisfying and is often insulting. What other
scales could you use? Conservative/innovative perhaps. But the
answer's not always obvious. For example, some British see linguistic
Americanisms as innovative because they appear now, whereas these
features of English are usually conservative because they were
discarded in British usage a couple of hundred years ago but survived
in North America.

 Best wishes,

 Sidney Wood PhD
 Dept. of Linguistics
 Helgonabacken 12
 223 62 LUND


	 From: "Roger Lass" <>

This is quite common in many dialects. Look at the tongue
configuration: the raised vowel is a response to the high tongue
position for a velar closure. There is probably a similar effect
before stops as well, but much harder to hear because of the quick

Many southern & S Midland US dialects have a similar if not identical
response for /g/: diphthongisation of short vowels by epenthesis of a
high vowel agreeing in backness: e.g. [ei] in 'leg', and the back
counterpart in 'dog'.


	 From: Toby Paff <tobypaffPrinceton.EDU>


 Two observations.

 1/ the 'ng' on the gerund in many American dialects is a completely
 'learned' phenomenon and in fact, many of us (I am original a nondescript
 Midwesterner) pronounced it with a lax 'i' followed by an 'n'; hence,
 "somethin'" and "talkin'" (but "sing" vs "sin"). Despite my wasted life
 as a grad student and a 'professional', I still occasionally find myself
 doing that.

 2/ as a long time resident of New Jersey, I have noticed that my
 colleagues from Eastern PA use a rather lax 'e' in words like 'tail' and
 'tale' so that they sound like 'tell' to me. This is very distinct.

 Just a couple of odd observations.

 Good luck.

 Toby Paff



 Yes, there IS a dialectal variation involved, and a fairly complicated
 one. Like you, I have always heard the "i" before the velar nasal as
 tense, but for example John S. Kenyon, in AMERICAN PRONUNCIATION, always
 transcribed that as [I]. In a lot of American dialects there is what
 Kenneth Pike called "neutralization of the [phonemic] contrast"; in what
 I call West Penn-Ohio idioms, this and other tense-lax contrasts are
 "neutralized" before the sonorants -- most completely before /r/, then
 before the velar nasal, and seemingly erratically before /l/. For those
 who "have" the fusion, of course, both in Pittsburgh and here in
 Youngtown, Ohio, it is virtually complete.

 My own [originally Pittsburgh] pronunciation distinguishes `steel` and
 `still` but not, say, "ear" and "ir-" [though I can FAKE it] nor "gringo"
 and anything like it. To do the latter contrast, I and others would have
 to alveolarize the nasal: "grin-go" or "green-go"; some Americans do in
 fact do this latter alveolar thing in trying to avoid "dropping their
 g's": "'Coleen" and "E-teen" for "calling" and "eating."

 Clyde Hankey


	 From: "Kathy H." <>

 Dear Carol,

This is a matter of neutralization between the two vowels. Some
people do make it sound more "tense" while others do make it sound
more "lax". This is regional.

The variation you mention for "Steeler" is also an example of
neutralization which varies from region to region.

In certain environments, such as before the velar nasal, as well as
before the lateral or a voiceless post-alveolar fricative and other
environments, the distinction between two vowels is lost. The
environments for neutralization vary from region to region. I'm a
T.A. for an Introductory Phonetics course, and the one person who had
the most neutralization--I mean, she neutralized "everything"!--was
from Pennsylvania.

I refer you to this website: 

It shows where certain types of neutralization take place throughout
the nation. I think you need to go to "Maps".

I also refer you to Ladefoged (2001). _A Course in Phonetics_, 4th
edition. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishers. (See pp. 81-82)

 Kathy Hansen

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue