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I'm wondering about the dual pronunciations of the letter /i/ in open syllables. Usually it has the realization [a͡ɪ], representing the regular outcome of long i after the great vowel shift, but sometimes it is [iː], as in "saline". Can anyone provide some theories on why this is?

(My theory is that, as spelling has remained the same since the pronunciation of the letter changed while English has continued to take in more and more foreign loan words, this is an imitation of the letter /i/'s pronunciation in most other languages, that is, a high front vowel. Or maybe it has something to do with stress patterns?)

I wasn't sure whether to post this here or in the linguistics stack exchange.

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    It depends on what language the words comes from (half of English is not Germanic in origin) and how the pronunciation came through. This varies so much that algorithmically deriving pronunciations from spellings is not noticeably more effective than dictionary lookup, and it seems clear that many literate English speakers never learn or practice the rules for this reason. Hence they are generally incomplete, incorrect, or based on faulty parallels; at least since the standardization of English spelling. – John Lawler Feb 12 '15 at 15:56
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    It's not just the language; glorify and charity are both from Latin through Old French, and they're pronounced differently. – Peter Shor Feb 14 '15 at 13:50
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    @sumelic: While "glorify" and "charity" do come from different vowels in French, can you tell me how this affected their English pronunciation? Shakespeare rhymed fortify and memory. Why didn't he notice that these had different vowels? – Peter Shor Mar 3 '15 at 2:38
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    Shakespeare rhymed memory with die, sky, masonry, fortify, eternity, rhymed qualify with lie, and rhymed eye with lie and majesty. I think it's pretty clear that these all ended with (at least nearly) the same vowel. – Peter Shor Mar 3 '15 at 2:50
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    This isn't really a matter of open vs. closed syllables. All the i’s in inner, illiterate, inimical are phonetically in open syllables, and homorganic lengthening in EME means there are quite a few cases of diphthongal i’s in closed syllables: wild, behind, climb, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 20 '15 at 9:21
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While the patterns of English orthography are complex, the most likely factor here is indeed the influence of other languages, in particular, French, where orthographic "i" = [i] and "-ine" = [in]. However, the distribution in English of this pronunciation of "-ine" is somewhat irregular, and some words have /ɪn/ or /aɪn/ or even multiple attested pronunciations.

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