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Close front and close back vowels

There are two vowels that are commonly found in weak syllables. These two vowels are ‘i’ and ‘u’.
Very long time ago, when I had the first contact with English phonemic chart, I was taught about long vowels such as /i:/ and /u:/ (the colon symbol shows us that the vowel is a long one). It is not the case in our days since this classification is obsolete.

Close front and close back vowels

That being said, there were three kinds of ‘i’ vowels: /ɪ/ as in the word ‘fit’, /i:/ as in the word ‘eat’, and /i/ as I see it in the word ‘busy’ (/ˈbɪzi/). It is not easy to distinguish between /i/ sound in the word ‘eat‘, and /i/ sound in the word ‘busy’ but for me the /i/ in ‘busy’ is shorter, weaker, and shares characteristics from the other two vowels (/i:/ and /ɪ/). It is the same in the case of /u/ vowel.

The picture above shows us how two famous dictionaries (dictionary.com and dictionary.cambridge.org) show different phonemic transcriptions (or maybe I should say different symbols). The difference appears in the words ‘eat’ and ‘busy’. The Cambridge dictionary (on the right side) uses /i:/. Dictionary.com uses a normal /i/. So, Cambridge differentiate the /i/ sound in the word ‘eat’ from the /i/ sound in the word ‘busy’ as being /i:/ and /i/ respectively.

Native speakers of English, and also learners of English, seem to feel comfortable with the simplified transcription of dictionary.com which is a strong argument in its favor.

Let’s take a look at where these vowels are found. We find /i/ occurring in the following situations:

In all other cases (or most of them) of weak syllables containing a close vowel (unrounded) we can assign the vowel to the /ɪ/ phoneme (examples: resist, enough, incident etc.) This vowel is often represented in spelling by the letter ‘i’.

Weak syllables with close back (rounded) vowels are not found very often. We find /u/ in the words ‘through’ and ‘who’ when they are unstressed. We also find /u/ in the following words: ‘you’, ‘to’, ‘into’, and ‘do’ when they are unstressed and are not immediately preceding a consonant. Within a word, this vowel is also found before another vowel (example: evacuation).


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