In some books, the long "a" found in words like say, play, etc. are transcribed as /sei/, /plei/ respectively but in some others the same words are transcribed /se/ and /ple/. Which one is correct? Can we consider both? What is the standard IPA transcription of the long "a"?

  • It's definitely a diphthong
    – Octopus
    Jul 14, 2017 at 5:39

1 Answer 1


In purely phonetic terms, it is most definitely not an [e]. Few dialects of English have a true [e] (some have [eː], but that’s a different sound).

The ‘long a’ diphthong can be variously transcribed as [ɛɪ], [ɛi], [eɪ], or occasionally [ei], depending on how broad the phonetic transcription is, what dialect is being transcribed, and a host of other factors. (Various diacritics to show more precisely a specific pronunciation may also be added.)


In phonemic transcription, which is what I think you’re really asking about (despite the tag), it is usually transcribed /eɪ/ or /ɛɪ/, since phonemic transcriptions of English most commonly assume that the underlying difference between [ɪ] and [iː] is one of tense-/laxness, rather than length: they are thus phonemicised as /ɪ/ and /i/, which would make /ei/ a combination of lax (short) [e/ɛ] following by tense/long [iː]—a combination I don’t think exists in any natural English word.

As most phonemicisations of English do not recognise a similar phonemic opposition between lax (short) /ɛ/ and tense (long) /e/, it is purely a matter of convention and habit whether you write the (lax/short) phoneme as /e/ or /ɛ/: both are in common use.

I don’t believe I have ever come across any literature that does recognise a tense (long) /e/ as a phoneme and identifies it with the diphthong [ɛɪ], though doing so would not be particularly heretic—long /o/ is a corresponding diphthong [oʊ] or [əʊ], after all. This would likely break down once you start comparing different dialects of English, though—various vowel mergers in dialects means that ‘English’ phonemes are really more like supraphonemes.

  • Did you mean archiphonemes for the last word?
    – tchrist
    Jul 22, 2014 at 12:56
  • @tchrist No, an archiphoneme is something slightly different. /N/, for example, can be said to be an archiphoneme for pre-occlusive nasals [m n ɱ ŋ]. A supraphoneme (at least in the way I understand and use the word) is a phoneme that spans different phonemic systems with different surface values, like the BATH/PALM/LOT/CLOTH/THOUGHT series of /a/-based supraphonemes: some variants lump together BATH and PALM, some PALM and LOT, some LOT and CLOTH, and some CLOTH and THOUGHT. There are five supraphonemes, but they divide into only three differently distributed phonemes in different dialects. Jul 22, 2014 at 13:28
  • Hm, ok. BTW, there is also the lumping together of PALM and THOUGHT, which I have — except I still have the the L. So Call me a taxi and Calm me a taxi are perfect homophones for me.
    – tchrist
    Jul 22, 2014 at 14:13
  • @tchrist Those are homophones for me too, but because I lose both the l’s, not because I retain them. Well, near-homophones, anyway. The m is slightly longer in the second than the first. Call me a taxi and Caw me a taxi (however one might do that) are perfect homophones, though. Jul 22, 2014 at 14:15
  • 2
    American English phonemics normally uses /e/ for [ei] and /o/ for [ou]. Thus the correct phonemic transcription of play in American English would be /ple/. Since all tense vowel phonemes are predictably diphthongized, a phonemic transcription does not need to indicate this. On the other hand, the true phonemic diphthongs, as in buy, bough, and boy, are written phonemically as /bay/ (or /bai/), /baw/, and /boy/. Jul 22, 2014 at 14:29

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