The other long I

Since I was a kid, I’ve recognized something that I never see acknowledged in dictionaries: English has two versions of the long I.

The fact that this is never, ever mentioned in a dictionary or any place you would see a word’s pronunciation listed (such as Wikipedia) bothers me. Going to Wiktionary’s English pronunciation page, you see no mention of this at all. In any dictionary legend I’ve ever seen, this is not listed. But it’s a real thing.

Compare the following words:

mine / might
ride / right
bile / bike
lime / like

There’s a difference in the way the vowel is pronounced, and it’s because it’s an entirely different kind of vowel. (Altogether.)

If you slow down the vowel you might hear it better. The “traditional” long I as in “by” is, when slowed, kind of a diphthong sounding like ah-ee. No wonder, then, the long I is represented by “ai” in phonetic languages like Spanish (and in my name, which is Italian), where the A becomes “ah” and the I becomes “ee”. But the form used in “bike” and “light” slows down as uh-ee. The vowel starts off on a different footing.

Now in practice, the distinction only seems to be related to certain following consonant sounds: F, K, P, hard S, and T. All of those get the second long I. (Examples: life, hike, ripe, vice, tight.) I can’t think of any words in English where a long I precedes an SH, CH, or hard TH. But all other words (vibe, ride, tiger, oblige, file, lime, pine, fire, rise, blithe, strive, try) get a different long I, the same one you’d get if there was no following vowel at all.

Even though this is dependent on the consonant, a dictionary legend really should distinguish between the two vowels. They make a distinction between a long A and a long A that precedes an R, a difference most people can’t even hear. The difference in the I sounds is far less subtle. The fact that this never comes up in pronunciation guides, nor any serious discussion of phonetics I’ve ever seen (that didn’t go completely over my head, anyway) is darn strange. It’s like stumbling onto a conspiracy where all the advanced mathematicians in the world refuse to acknowledge the number 3; there’s absolutely no way they should be unaware of it, but they never discuss it.

I seriously can’t be the only human being in the world capable of grasping this difference. I am by no means well-versed in phonetics, but it seems like if this is acknowledged at the higher levels of the science at all, it’s completely omitted from any texts aimed at the layman. This should be in every dictionary.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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