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This is a phonetics question.

I am teaching English as a Second Language. In phonetics, we all know the "i" in "think" is a "short i" sound. Additionally, the "i" in "bit" is a "short i" sound. However, when many of my students pronounce "think", "link", "stink", and so on - they pronounce the "i" in those words in an unnatural fashion (as if they are taking the "i" directly from other "short i" words and putting it into these words).

To my ear, and my pronunciation, the "i" in "think" is far different from the "i" in "bit", even if it is short. In the same way, the "i" in "-ing" is different from the "i" in "bit" (or "sit", "grit", "fit", etc.).

I believe this has a lot to do with the "n", but I'd like some technical explanation regarding the nuances of the system and how I can explain different pronunciations of a "short i" sound (instead of just having them listen and repeat).

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This would be a very good question for Linguistics.SE. – Daniel Dec 19 '11 at 19:48
How is this off-topic? It's all about English, right? – Mitch Dec 19 '11 at 21:03
Within the FAQ, it clearly states that questions on pronunciation are acceptable. Why is this thread closed? – J.L. Dec 19 '11 at 22:27
I agree. Any class on the English language that doesn't deal with the English phoneme system is clearly useless, and questions about pronunciation are crucial for ESL teachers and students. Where else are they going to find out? Not in Linguistics.SE; that's all about other languages and theoretical abstractions (which is probably why there are so few questions asked there). – John Lawler Dec 19 '11 at 22:42

5 Answers 5

First, if you're actually teaching English to non-native speakers, you must learn and use at least those IPA symbols that represent English phonemes. Get yourself a copy of Kenyon and Knott and use it; or borrow one of your students' bilingual dictionaries. If you help them, your students can understand the pronunciations as they appear in their bilingual dictionaries, which always use IPA symbols; but they won't understand what you mean, otherwise. And they won't improve.

Second, the correct vowel symbol is /ɪ/, which appears in hill, shit, think, Mrs, and rim. We're talking about a high front lax vowel here, not a "short vowel", and certainly not about the letter I; calling something "short I" is 18th-Century nonsense. It's not short in Modern English, and it's not pronounced /ay/. How words are spelled in English has very little to do with how they're pronounced. English spelling is a good system for Middle English, but it's a bad system for Modern English.

Third, you're correct that a vowel before a nasal consonant /m, n, ŋ/ in English will sound different, because all vowels (including /ɪ/) that appear before nasals are nasalized. That is to say, they are pronounced with the nasal passage open, instead of closed.

This is because the nasal passage has to open in order to pronounce the nasal consonant, and the vowel anticipates this opening. This is a standard, predictable, utterly automatic, allophonic process in English phonology, and it does make the vowel sound different. But it doesn't make it a different vowel, because nasalized vowels occur in English only before nasal consonants, so they never contrast with non-nasalized vowels.

Finally, it's phonetics, not phonics. Phonics is a system of lying to English-speaking children in an effort to teach them how to spell their own language, and is useless for adults who don't already know English. (It's pretty useless for children, too, as we can see anywhere.)

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From what I gathered, I think he is saying that the two words technically have the same phonetic "i" sound (as in, they are both expressed using "/ɪ/" and are both nasalized). But that /ɪ/ sound morphs and changes depending on the consonants it is attached to. Please correct me if I'm wrong. – J.L. Dec 20 '11 at 4:32
@Mitch: . /ɪ/ is an English Phoneme. It has several Allophones. One of them is the nasalized [ɪ̃] (note the tilde over ɪ) that appears only before nasal consonants; the non-nasalized [ɪ] allophone never appears there. Most phonemes have several allophones, like the aspirated [pʰ] in /pɪn/ [pʰɪ̃n] or /pɪt/ [pʰɪt], versus the unaspirated [p] in /spɪn/ [spɪ̃n] or /spɪt/ [spɪt]. But they're predictably different, and native speakers don't notice the difference. Consult any good book on English. – John Lawler Dec 20 '11 at 4:41
JL got it right, and put it down in a simple way. – Kris Dec 20 '11 at 6:58
@PeterShor's comment is important. Many people do use a different vowel, /i/ or something very close to it. JohnLawler's answer is incomplete on this point. – MετάEd Dec 20 '11 at 14:39
Just to clarify in Lawler's explanation: "the vowel anticipates this opening" is a reference to "assimilation": a type of coarticulation--that is, the alteration of a speech sound to make it more similar to its neighbors. In English, this affects the place of articulation. The primary motivation of assimilation is ease of articulation: it is easier to articulate two consecutive sounds if they share features such as place/manner. In English, assimilation is mostly right-to-left (you anticipate the coming sound): in+practical = impractical. But it's left-to-right in derivations: cook+ed =[kʊkt]. – mellow-yellow Oct 21 at 14:31

In California and the Southwestern U.S., the /ɪ/ in think is pronounced more like the vowel /i/ in bean, so it's close to /θiŋk/ in IPA. See this post on dialect blog, which calls it pre-velar tensing. In fact, I suspect this pronunciation is also present in the speech of some Americans who are not from the West, just judging from the way some speakers on pronounce king.

The standard way to pronounce English is to use a short i as in /bɪt/ in these words, and this is the pronunciation you should teach to ESL learners. Your students are doing it correctly; don't uncorrect them.

UPDATE: Even if the difference you are noticing is between nasalized vowels before "ng", "nk" and "n" that John Lawler points out, and not this California pre-velar tensing, I don't believe it's the most urgent thing to correct in an ESL student ... these are two allophones of the same phoneme, and so should be perfectly understandable to a native English speaker (even if does produce a noticeable foreign accent).

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+1 for identifying this as a regionalism – MετάEd Dec 20 '11 at 14:32
One way you could check whether it's nasalization or pre-velar tensing, is to see whether this phenomenon happens in "bin". Nasalization happens before /m,n,ŋ/, and pre-velar tensing only happens before /ŋ/, but not /m,n/. – Peter Shor Dec 15 '12 at 18:43

Nasal vowels may be a feature of US speech, but I’m not sure they occur in non-regional British speech. I hear no difference between the vowel in bit and the vowel in think and for the latter, indeed, the OED has /θɪŋk/, and not /θɪ̰ŋk/, for the US pronunciation. Nasal vowels are a noticeable feature of French, where they typically occur without a following nasal consonant. To be sure that they exist in English it would be helpful to be able to identify such sounds in isolation. Can speakers of American English pronounce the first two sounds of /θɪŋk/ alone as /θɪ̰/? (The tilde represents nasalization.)

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Wikipedia says that vowels get nasalized in English before nasal consonants. I believe I do it, but to a much smaller degree than for the nasal vowels in French. It also says that huh often uses a nasal vowel in English, despite not being before a nasal consonant. I believe the same is true for the distinction between uh-huh (meaning yes) and uh-uh (meaning no); the vowels in uh-uh are nasalized. – Peter Shor Dec 21 '11 at 12:13
@PeterShor: I still think they are found predominantly in American rather than British speech, although we do sometimes nasalize 'huh'. – Barrie England Dec 21 '11 at 15:17
My nasalized huh is a reasonable start to hung, hunt, or hum but not to hut. (Although I think I nasalize the vowel in huh a little more than in those words.) All of these are nasalized much less than the French nasal vowels. I believe that singers in the U.S. are told specifically not to nasalize any vowels. If these vowels aren't nasalized in the U.K., there would be no need to give singers this instruction; this might be a way to check whether this is a feature of British English. – Peter Shor Dec 21 '11 at 21:46

Hmm, the "i" in "think" and the "i" in "bit" sound the same to me, at least the way I and people I know (native English speakers in New York, Ohio, and Michigan) say them.

Break up the words: th - i - nk, that is, say it as thuh - i - engk; and b - i - t, i.e. buh - i - tuh. The "i" has the same sound in both cases. As long as you don't run the "i" into the "ng" sound, there shouldn't be any confusion, that is, don't pronounce "bit" as "bingt". But we're not talking about a different vowel sound, we're talking about the consonant sound that comes after the vowel. Sure the "i" and the "ng" run together, but so do all the phonemes making up a single syllable.

I wouldn't be surprised if this is a problem for someone coming from a language that doesn't have the same phonemes. I think you just need to learn the phonemes and pronounce each separately before you try to run them together.

(Any discussion like this is probably difficult to conduct in writing as opposed to verbally.)

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If you sound the words separately, you'd hear that the /I/ is the same in 'think' and 'bit'.

The reason why it sounds different is because, when you link the individual sounds and say the word naturally, /ŋ/ in /θɪŋk/ isn't a "clean" sound like /t/ in /bIt/.Vowel sounds in words are affected by their subsequent consonant sound.

Outside of a university linguistics class, what you're doing is really the best way to learn for ESL students i.e. sounding it out and getting them to say it - sounds to word, then word to sounds.

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I agree with the OP, the two vowels sound different. – Mitch Dec 19 '11 at 21:07
As a former ESL teacher, I disagree strongly. It's best to represent sounds correctly when teaching a language. ESL is no different from any other language that way. – John Lawler Dec 19 '11 at 21:09

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