In some languages, you can look at a written word and know almost immediately how to say it. You can also hear a word and know exactly how to write it down. These are properties of phonetic languages. But English is not a phonetic language. In English, often the same letter or group of letters can be said in different ways.
Our question this week comes from Virginie in France.
Hello! It’s always a little bit hard for me to get the right pronunciation of the letter -i in a word. Is it pronounced “I” or “e”? How do I know when to say one or the other? – Virginie
This may come as a surprise, but the letter -i can have more than one sound. In fact, it can be pronounced six ways in American English alone!
(ɪ) as in kick and sit
(aɪ) as in mine and time
(i:) as in junior and lenient
(i) as in regime and vaccine
(Ə) as in audible and permissible
And (ae) as in timbre
But do not worry! There are a few things that can make things easier:
- The first is an online dictionary with pronunciation audio recordings. Good computer-based guides have a little sign or mark you can click on to hear how a word is said. The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary is excellent for American English. If online dictionaries say the words too quickly, Google Translate offers two speeds: standard and slow.
- Good online dictionaries also list the IPA spellings of words. Some people find the IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet, useful. It is a series of markings that represent spoken sounds. You can find the IPA guide and its sounds on two websites: internationalphoneticalphabet.org/ and on Wikipedia.
- You can also ask a native English speaker to say the word a few times and watch their mouth as they speak. Pronunciation involves the lips, teeth and tongue so seeing how the speaker uses them can be a big help. Or, you can use a good video pronunciation series. Videos will not explain every word that contains a letter but they can show you how to produce sounds from that letter.
Although English is not a phonetic language, there are some spelling patterns, or combinations, whose sounds are more dependable than others.
Listen to the following words and then look at the spelling. The word meanings are not important:
In words with two or more syllables that end in the letters i-n-e and i-m-e, the –i is often pronounced (i).
And that’s Ask a Teacher.
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
Alice Bryant wrote this report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
pronunciation – n. the act or way of saying something
audio – adj. of or relating to sound or its reproduction
click – v. to choose something by pressing a control device
syllable – n. one or more sounds in a word