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My English textbook use “iː”, and I find some online dictionaries use “ē”. Where can I find information about this phonics system?

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The situation is a mess, with every dictionary and book using its own ad-hoc system. There is of course the IPA, which most general-purpose books tend to avoid. You're best off looking in the preface/appendix of the respective books/dictionaries, I guess. –  ShreevatsaR Feb 13 '11 at 5:20
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I believe the Oxford dictionaries use IPA. –  Peter Taylor Feb 13 '11 at 7:52
    
@Peter: the main OED certainly does. –  PLL Feb 13 '11 at 7:53
    
@Peter @PLL, IPA is pretty standard these days in British dictionaries, and not used at all in American dictionaries (though most do list a mapping in their introductory materials) –  nohat Feb 15 '11 at 19:03
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If you are studying sound changes in the history of English, you will find that barred transcriptions like ē are not adhoc. They just provide a link to pre-Great vowel shift pronunciations. –  RainDoctor Sep 2 '12 at 19:16

3 Answers 3

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As @ShreevatsaR commented, the situation with transcribing pronunciations is a mess. Many different systems exist; they often use the same letters in confusingly different ways.

The most widely-used and standardised system is the International Phonetic Alphabet. This is what your textbook is presumably using when it uses /iː/ — for instance, the English word seen would be transcribed in IPA as /siːn/. The reason IPA uses /iː/ here is that in many European languages, this vowel is represented by the letter i; and then the colon represents lengthening of the vowel.

IPA isn’t perfect, for a few reasons. Although in principle it’s completely standardised, books using IPA often still have minor differences in how they use it. Also, because it’s international, it’s not designed specifically for English, so often (as in this case) its symbols don’t match up well with the letters used in English spelling (and similarly for other languages). However, IPA is pretty good, and it’s by far the nearest thing in existence to a versatile, accurate, standardised system for representing pronunciation.

To learn how the IPA works, good places to start are the Wikipedia articles on the IPA itself, IPA for English, and on IPA in your own language (so you can make comparisons with pronunciations you know well).

Many books still prefer not to use IPA, I believe because they see its unusual symbols, and its differences from English spelling, as too off-putting for some readers. As a result, they use a variety of ad hoc respelling systems, usually trying to imitate ‘standard’ English spelling to a greater or lesser extent. That’s presumably what the online dictionaries you’ve found are doing with ē (e.g. Merriam-Webster has such a system). Any dictionary using such a system should have a page somewhere explaining how their system works; a good overview of the most notable systems is available at (of course) Wikipedia.

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Should note that the : in /i:/ is not phonemically significant in English. It's there, obviously, to indicate that the /i/ vowel is (on the average) slightly elongated as compared to the /ɪ/, but it can also mislead students of English into believing that /i/ and /ɪ/ are the same. –  awm Feb 13 '11 at 9:58
    
The IPA is totally standardized. To extend what @awm is talking about: transcription is always an abstraction, and so there always has to be some kind of tradeoff between total accuracy and the ability to actual distinguish the meaningful units. Therefore, transcriptions can be anywhere along the continuum between broad and narrow. –  Kosmonaut Feb 15 '11 at 17:07
    
@Kosmonaut: indeed re @awm’s point, & broad vs. narrow. But beyond that, I thought I remembered seeing it mentioned in several places how while in principle it’s fully standardised, in practice many dictionaries (and researchers, etc.) end up using slightly different ‘dialects’ of IPA — mild extensions/variants of it to suit their languages or purposes. (E.g. the OED’s use of /ɨ/ to represent “free variation between /i/ and /ə/”.) I must be at least slightly misremembering, since searching for the phrase “dialect(s) of IPA” has almost no hits, but I think the point still somewhat stands. –  PLL Feb 15 '11 at 18:16
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@PLL: Yes, you are absolutely right about how it's used. I should have expanded on what I was saying: when they deviate from IPA, then they aren't really using IPA. The IPA is standardized by the International Phonetic Association, and is revised from time to time. The reason I was making that point was to say that the variations that publications use are not caused by the lack of an available standard, since there is one; rather, it is (for whatever reason) an unwillingness to adopt it. It frustrates me. –  Kosmonaut Feb 15 '11 at 18:33
    
You might also want to note that you can see a comparison of all the “phonetic respelling” systems, as they are called, here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronunciation_respelling_for_English –  nohat Feb 15 '11 at 19:06

There are many different dictionary phonetic notations, but they mostly use the same conventions for the breve (˘) and macron (¯) accent marks.

The breve indicates a "short vowel":

  • ă = æ (IPA) = a in "cat"
  • ĕ = ɛ = e in "met"
  • ĭ = ɪ = i in "bit"
  • ǒ = ɒ = o in "pot" (in dialects without cot/caught merger)
  • ŭ = ʌ = u in "cut"

The macron indicates a "long vowel":

  • ā = eɪ = ay in "pay"
  • ē = iː = e in "me"
  • ī = aɪ = i in "fight"
  • ō = oʊ = o in "go"
  • ū = uː or juː = u in "tune"

(The traditional "short"/"long" distinction would have been more accurate prior to the Great Vowel Shift.)

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Part of it is whether they're looking at it historically (diachronically, I believe, is the technical term) or from the point of view of present-day usage.

Historically, the letter I (in English, as in most other European languages) had a sound similar to "ee" (like in "machine"), or maybe a little shorter. English then underwent the Great Vowel Shift, which among other things turned the "standard" sound of this letter into "ai" (like "I" the pronoun, or as in "night"). Its place was taken by E (as in "seen").

So your English textbook uses "i:" for historical reasons, while the dictionaries are using a system where, as much as possible, the vowel sounds use variations on the primary letter that bears that sound nowadays (for example, all of the various sounds that usually are spelled with E are denoted with this letter, and distinguished using markings such as acute and grave accents, circumflex, macron, and so forth).

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It seems a little misleading to bring the GVS in and say the textbook “uses ‘i:’ for historical reasons”. The textbook surely uses ‘i:’ because that’s what the IPA uses. The IPA in turn uses it because ‘i’ often represents this sound in other languages; this is in turn related to the history of how ‘i’ was used in English, and hence at last to the great vowel shift… But the textbook is using ‘i’ for reasons which are much more than historical :-) –  PLL Feb 13 '11 at 7:36
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Agree with @PLL -- if anything, it's the other way round: works that don't use IPA (or a modern phonetic transcription system) are more liable to be doing so for historical reasons. –  Neil Coffey Feb 13 '11 at 14:17
    
Fair enough, both of you - I guess I've been too English-centric, forgetting about the I of IPA! –  Alex Feb 14 '11 at 0:04
    
@Alex, you are right about diachronical nature of transcriptions using macron. –  RainDoctor Sep 2 '12 at 19:17
    
British vowels generally fall into two lengths: short and long. British IPA accurately indicates these lengths using the symbol /ː/. American English has mostly lost this distinction in vowel lengths, meaning that in American English the symbol /ː/ conveys no information. See, for example, this vowel chart from Wikipedia. –  Peter Shor Sep 2 '12 at 19:40

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