Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Every time I read a new and unknown word containing the letter 'i' I wonder how I should pronounce it. What's very frustrating for me is that, when I look up the words, I find out that my gut feeling was wrong for most of them.

A Google search only gave a few links talking about the pronunciation of this letter, but most times they are at a very low level.

From what I found and read, finally I daresay that:

  1. i is pronounce as /aɪ/ when i + consonant + e as in: time, site, fire, to entire, ...
  2. i is pronounce as /aɪ/ when i is followed by gh as in: sigh, sight, thigh, ...
  3. i is pronounce as /aɪ/ when i is preceded by a as in: aisle, ...
  4. i is pronounce as /aɪ/ when i is written as y: to try, to fly, to cry, ...
  5. else i is pronounce as /ɪ/: to hit, ship, sick

But there are many exceptions, too many in my opinion:

  1. to give, to notice, clandestine (/ɪ/ instead of /aɪ/)
  2. to fail, to contain (/eɪ/ instead of /aɪ/)
  3. gravity, paucity, hierarchy (/i/ instead of /aɪ/)
  4. pie, title, vital, giant, modifier (/aɪ/ instead of /ɪ/)

The following words are very interesting, because the pronunciation is swapped to what I expected:

  • indecisive
  • library

My vocabulary is very rudimentary, but yet I know a lot of exceptions.

So, I know that it is hard to make pronunciation rules for English words. But how can I improve my gut feeling in pronouncing new words correctly?

share|improve this question
3  
Learn and remember the pronunciation of each new word as you encounter it. –  Barrie England Jan 14 '12 at 14:55
2  
Just to make it worse, the letter itself is pronounced "eye" in American English, and "eee" in many other languages... –  Affable Geek Jan 14 '12 at 15:10
1  
y follows the same rules as i; it is not invariably a diphthong. Compare aye, eyrie, eyot, oyster, Sally, myrtle, yellow, yucky, cataclysm, clyster, synthetic, syringe, Syria, Lyon,Lydian, lyric, glyph, glycerin, yule, Yvonne, youngster, tympany, tyrannical, typical, pyrric, Lysistrata with myopia, pyre, lyre, tyre, typhus, tyrant, tycoon, typology, shyster, glycogen, Lycoperdon, xylem, xylophone, zygote. –  tchrist Jan 14 '12 at 15:44
3  
#3 is more of an exception than a rule. As I learned in elementary school, "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." –  Dan Jan 14 '12 at 19:11
2  
@BarrieEngland I’ve studied like a dozen different languages apart from English, and in none of them did I ever have to ‘learn’ a word’s pronunciation the way you claim one must in English, in some fashion divorced from its orthography. There is no pronunciation to learn. You look at the word and you know how to say it. Period. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the word before. Its pronunciation is fixed. Many languages work this way. It’s not unusual for people coming from such a language to desire the same sensibility in English. –  tchrist Jan 15 '12 at 2:20

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I'll elaborate a bit on Barrie's point, which is correct, if disappointing.

The problem is that English spelling was not designed for Modern English. It was designed for Middle English, a very different language. When Middle English changed its pronunciation to become Modern English, English spelling did not change. Furthermore, English borrowed many thousands of words from other languages, which were of course pronounced differently, and spelled differently still.

The result is that one has to choose between two strategies in learning English words, however they are spelled -- this is not a problem confined to the letter I -- or else figure out some way to mix them.

Either you can actually learn the historical rules about pronunciation and learn to distinguish the different kinds of word each rule applies to -- which amounts to learning some basic linguistics,

Or you can do as Barrie suggested, and memorize 2 things about every word you learn -- (1) how it's spelled and (2) how it's pronounced (Kenyon and Knott is your friend here) -- and just ignore the possible but treacherous correspondences you might suspect between Middle English or foreign spellings and Modern English pronunciations.

The second option amounts to giving up all hope of making sense of English spelling. Most native English speakers do this, which is simpler for them, since they already know the pronunciation.

Since Anglophone education systems don't teach anything about English language, they never learn any different, and many still believe there should be a simple rule for pronouncing every letter.

share|improve this answer
1  
Native speakers, when presented with a new word they’ve never seen before, almost always agree on what its pronunciation must be. Therefore, there is an underlying system at work here. –  tchrist Jan 14 '12 at 16:12
1  
Yes, but there is no single rule for pronouncing the letter I. And the system is based on distinguishing Germanic from Romance roots and applying different rules to each. Also, this is only true of educated, literate English speakers, and this is not the majority. –  John Lawler Jan 14 '12 at 16:38
    
@tchrist: My Chambers only gives the /ɪ/ pronunciation for clandestine, but MW agrees with my feeling that /aɪ/ is also perfectly acceptable. I think what this shows is that even though there are several "rules" in play, as well as plenty of exceptions, speakers in general do have a tendency to steer towards agreement now most of us can read/write as well as talk. Plus, of course, we have access to more recordings, broadcasts, and travel, so dialectal variation also tends to be squeezed out of the system (though I do realise there are opposing forces on that front). –  FumbleFingers Jan 14 '12 at 17:46
2  
@tchrist: that is definitely not true for native speakers. Consider all the words with different American/English/Australian pronunciations. –  Peter Shor Jan 14 '12 at 21:49
3  
@PeterShor: No. Whether I agree with tchrist's point or not (and I do in general), the fact that different rules are in play for different dialects doesn't invalidate his point. Your response is totally neither here nor there. –  ThePopMachine Jan 14 '12 at 22:44

English is a language that borrows words and sounds from other languages like German, French, Greek, Latin, and so on, and sometimes a word's pronunciation or spelling is based on where the word comes from. For example, English words that come from Latin words usually pronounce i as /ɪ/, such as in ignition /ɪgˈnɪʃən/.

If it helps you, if you find out what language a word comes from and how that language pronounces sounds or spells words, you might be able to figure out how to pronounce the word in English.

share|improve this answer

The issue of spelling and pronunciation is really hard in English. The language is not spoken the way that it is written.

A simple example for this: when I was at prep school, I had a sophisticated, masters degreed, native English speaker (American) teacher. Even he was really sweating on some words. He could not write the exact word on the board while he could pronunce them correctly in class. The hardship of the issue can be understood by this example.

It is a really complicated subject for people who are learning English. As I learned, there are no rules for pronunciation. When I face a new word for me, I try to pronunce it like the words I know by figuring out the similarity between the words.

share|improve this answer

i is pronounce as /aɪ/ when i + consonant + e as in: time, site, fire, to entire, ...

This is a special case of the "magic e" rule: vowel + consonant + e = "long" vowel. It's a fine rule that accurately describes pronunciation — most of the time.

Some silent e's do not lengthen the vowel, but serve other purposes:

  • To prevent a word from ending in "v", as in "give" and "live".
  • To "soften" a "c", as in "notice", "office", and "practice".

OTOH, some words ending in "ce" or "ve" do have a long vowel ("ice", "hive").

I can't determine why "engine" and "opposite" have short i's.

i is pronounce as /aɪ/ when i is followed by gh as in: sigh, sight, thigh, ...

"Eigh" is pronounced /eɪ/. (Eight reindeer pull the weight of Santa's sleigh.) Otherwise, I can't think of exceptions to this rule.

i is pronounce as /aɪ/ when i is preceded by a as in: aisle, ...

I'm afraid that I must raise an objection here. The main pronunciation of "ai" is /eɪ/. (The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.)

Again, all English spelling rules are certain to have exceptions, like the /ɪ/ in "mountain".

The word "said" seems to be unique in prouncing "ai" as /ɛ/.


Some more rules you could use are:

  • "tion" is pronounced /ʃən/
  • "ing" is prounounced /iŋ/ (or informally, /ɪn/)
  • "oi" is pronounced /ɔɪ/
  • "i" followed by a double consonant (or "ck", "dg", "tch") is pronounced /ɪ/.

So, I know (or I believe to know), that it is hard to make pronunciation rules for English words. But how can I improve my gut feeling, pronouncing new words correctly?

Start by learning the pronunciation first, and then learn the spelling. You'll know that a word is spelled right when the wavy red line under it disappears. That's what native speakers do.

share|improve this answer

As John says, there are a lot of things to consider when trying to figure out a specific word's pronunciation. I will point out, though, that I think your rules 3 and 4 are wrong, and you could supplement them with a few other rules.

3: ai is (almost) always pronounced /eɪ/: fail, pail, mail, curtail... (aisle is an exception to this common rule.)

4: a y is not an i, it has its own rules. :-)

5: ity at the end of a word is pronounced /ɪti/: gravity, city, pity...

6: ie at the end of a word is (mostly) pronounced /aɪ/: pie, lie, die..., but is /i/ if it is unstressed, as a nickname or a diminutive: Sissie, Bettie, budgie.

7: ier at the end of a word depends on the pronunciation of the word without the er: messy (mess-i) -> messier (mess-i-r), but deny (di-naɪ) -> denier (di-naɪ-r). (But pier and tier, not being stem + -er forms, are pronounced with an /ɪəʳ/.)

share|improve this answer

protected by Jasper Loy Jun 14 '12 at 23:11

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.