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According to The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, the contraction she's may be pronounced both with a short [i] sound(as in pit) and a long [i:] sound(as in sheep) when it means she is, but it must be pronounced with a long [i:] sound when it means she has.

I've always thought that she's is pronounced with a long [i:] only when it's used emphatically, regardless of its meaning. For example,

1.She's not coming with us. (she is, [i])
2.She's been doing well. (she has, [i])
3.She's the one who stole your keys. (she is, emphatic, [i:])
4.I don't have your keys. She's got them. (she has, emphatic, [i:])

According to the dictionary, however, I am wrong at least in my example 2. English is only my third language, so maybe I don't distinguish between [i] and [i:] as well as I should, but I hear the word she's in examples 1. and 2. pronounced in exactly the same way.

Questions for native speakers:

  • Were you aware of this difference in pronunciations of she's?
  • If I(or anyone else) were to pronounce she's from example 2. with a short [i], would you actually sense that something was pronounced not quite as it should have been?
  • Would you pronounce she's with a long [i:] in a non-emphatic context?
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Possibly the difference is cadence. When words are emphasized, the emphasis is some difference in any or all of: volume, pitch, duration, and shape. So when she's is unemphasized there is a small difference in the sound of it. If we tend to emphasize "she has" more than we emphasize "she is", then that might be reflected in the pronunciation of the contraction. –  MετάEd Feb 2 '12 at 19:03
    
+1 interesting question! –  whoabackoff Feb 2 '12 at 19:26
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According to the Oxford Advanced Learning Dictionary, she's is not pronounced with the sound in pit (ɪ), but either the sound in sheep (i:) or the sound in happy (i). Since sheep and happy have the same vowel in American English, this distinction certainly doesn't apply in the U.S. –  Peter Shor Feb 2 '12 at 19:41
    
she's with an [i] (as in pit) sounds like something that hits the fan... –  snumpy Feb 7 '12 at 19:13
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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Not all English dialects distinguish between the HAPPY vowel [i] and the FLEECE vowel [iː]; for example, General American does not.

One distinction that is made in all English dialects is the tense/lax distinction: the FLEECE vowel, tense [iː] vs the KIT vowel, lax [ɪ].

Note the terminology of tense vs lax, not long vs short. This is not just a length distinction, but a quality distinction. The tense vowel tends to be longer, higher, and sometimes becomes diphthongized.


EDIT: I realized I only answered part of your question.

She's < she is and she's < she has are homophones in all dialects. There is no difference in pronunciation based on the meaning of the contraction.

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+1 Absolutely. "There is no difference in pronunciation based on the meaning of the contraction" should have been in the main, than a rider. –  Kris Feb 3 '12 at 7:56
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This might be true of British speech -- I wouldn't know -- but it's certainly not true for American speech, where she's can be pronounced anywhere from /ʃiz/ to /'ʃijəz/, with tense /i/ in all cases.

And where all of these she's-es can represent either she is or she has. It's totally ambiguous.

Exactly like she'd (/ʃid/ to /'ʃijəd/), which can represent either she had or she would. Contractions contract information; what's lost can be regained from context. And ambiguity is not a bug; it's a design feature.

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+1 for the positive comment about ambiguity. –  Mark Beadles Feb 2 '12 at 19:23
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As a native English speaker, I would hear she's in #1 and #2 exactly the same way too. In fact, I can imagine #3 pronounced as [i], depending on the individual speaker.

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I do hear a difference (in British and Australian English, the versions of English I predominately speak) when I read the sentences to themselves. But if you swap the vowel sounds, I'm pretty sure you'll still be well understood as the meaning is clear in context.

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