Pronunciations of “i” in American English: ee, ai, ih

By 15 July 2018 Video lessons 18 Comments
Pronunciations of “i” in American English

Hi there! I’m your English coach Christina, welcome to Speak English with Christina, where you’ll learn American culture and business know-how to become confident in English.

How would you pronounce these words?

  • Taxi
  • Timer
  • Bitter
  • Machine
  • Octopi

Pronouncing “I” can be messy in English, and if there’s one pronunciation question that students ask the most it’s this:
“How can I know how to pronounce the letter “i” in words?”
“Is it /ih/ like in “sit”Or /ee/ like in “taxi”? Or /aï/ like in “light”?”

Has it ever happened to you, that you pronounced “i” incorrectly?
Or you were hesitant to make conversation for fear of mispronouncing?

Today, you’ll learn how to avoid these situations, and continue the conversation fluently, knowing the 3 ways of pronouncing the letter “i” in words.
Let’s go!

Pronunciation of “i”: The rules

You can pronounce the letter “i” in several ways.

Sometimes, we pronounce it /ee/, in four main cases:
1st – At the end of a word with several syllables. As in “taxi” or “jacuzzi.”
2nd – When “i” is followed by a vowel. As in “studio,” “audience,” “curious.”
3rd – When “i” is followed by an “e”, a “c” then another silent “e”. As in: “piece”, “niece”, or “believe”
And finally, 4th – In “ing”. As in “finger”, “acting”, “eating”…

Some other times, “i” is pronounced as “/ih/”. It’s a “short i”. We find it it “closed syllables” that end with a consonant.
For instance, one-syllable words such as “sit”, “big” or “mist”. Or in longer words where the letter “i” is followed by several consonants in a row. Especially when they’re doubled! As in “spinner”, “bitter”, “beginning”, or “bewildering”.

Finally, a third way to pronounce “i” is like… “I”. A long /ai/, that we find in “open syllables” – such as when the letter “i” is followed by a consonant then a vowel, especially a silent “e”. As in “rising”, “smile”, “wide”, or “timer”.

We also use long /ai/ before a silent g or a silent s, as in “light”, “might”, “sigh”, “sign” or “island”… and at the end of one-syllable words. Like “pi”, “wi-fi”, “hi” or… the letter “I”!

The (many) exceptions

That was a lot of rules! And yet you’ll find a lot of exceptions too! Let’s clear out a few of them right away.
First, in some words, “i” is pronounced /ee/ for historical reasons that you might find a bit random. As in: “machine”, “pizza”, “casino”, “naïve”…

Second, when the “i” is at the end of words that are plurals of Latin words, we pronounce it “i”. Words like “cacti”, “fungi” or “octopi”, for instance. Not words you’ll use every day, but good to know (you can impress your friends).

Third, in some words, the silent “e” doesn’t always open the preceding syllable, so in words like “give” or “to live”, or “notice”, the “i” is pronounced /ih/ and not /ee/.

Finally, I have to admit: the rules I told you are guidelines, at best.

Most of the times, you need to learn the pronunciation of the word by itself. You could learn each rule, but at some point it’s harder to remember the things that explain the differences in pronunciation of:

  • “Christ / mist”
  • “itinerary / iteration”
  • “child / build”
  • “possible / bible”
  • “line / linen”
  • “bison / vision”

You’ll have to practice a lot, listen to a lot of English, and figure out which “i” are open syllables and which are “closed” syllables.

The Great Vowel Shift: The reason for the complexities

These different pronunciations have a simple explanation: they’re not from the same language!

Indeed, in English, the spelling of words often comes from Middle English, the language of medieval England.

However, since then, the pronunciation experienced what we call the Great Vowel Shift. Over a few centuries, English people progressively changed a lot of their pronunciation, to build what’s now our Modern English language.

They stopped pronouncing the “e” at the end of words and double consonants, for instance, but they still kept the spelling.

So don’t worry! If you find the English pronunciation difficult, it’s not your fault: you’re only the victim of a giant medieval prank designed to make you struggle!

I have one very effective tip for you. Your best friend to improve your vocabulary and pronunciation is: your notebook! If you carry one around as you practice the English language, you can write down the spelling AND pronunciation of any new word you find.

Be sure to watch the episode, to hear how to pronounce all these words correctly:

Now, tell me: did you know how to correctly pronounce the words in the list at the beginning?

Write your answer in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!  

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And of course subscribe to my channel, so you get a new English lesson each week! Thanks for watching Speak English with Christina, and I’ll see you next time!

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