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If you have a look at the phonetic transcriptions (in IPA, International Phonetic Alphabet) of "champion" and "billion" you get a different symbol for the letter "i" (Cambridge Dictionaries Online, British English, and Collins Dictionary Online):

it is a [j + schwa + n] in "billion", but an [i + schwa + n] in "champion" (usually, both the j and the i without a dot to make it clear that they are phonetic symbols and not ordinary letters).

I just cannot figure out why a difference is made there, where – try as I may – I cannot hear any?! Cannot they both be palatalised?

Honestly… !

  • Generally we only speak of consonants being palatalised, not vowels or glides, which may be palatal or not, but not palatalised. That said, I agree with you. The sound before the schwa in both billion and champion varies quite freely for me between [i] and [j]. Note that the i without a dot in phonetics is [ɪ] (as in ‘hit’ /hɪt/), which is a different vowel from [i] (as in ‘see’ /si/ or /siː/ depending on how you view the phonemes of English). Personally, I don’t have [ɪ] as a possible option in billion or champion, but others may. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 28 '15 at 11:53
  • (Since the palatalisation of the /l/ and /p/, respectively, is completely automatic and non-phonemic, I’ve removed the palatalization tag. /ɪ/, /i/, and /j/ are all palatal, so palatalisation or palatality isn’t really a factor here at all.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 28 '15 at 11:57
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    @Janus: Note that the /ɪə/ in the phonetic notation in Oxford Dictionaries Online and Collins Dictionary is not necessarily /ɪ/ followed by /ə/, but is supposed to be the diphthong in idea and fear. This also seems wrong to me. It's not champeern. – Peter Shor Jun 28 '15 at 12:10
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: (you are right, there is "i" with dot and without, but, in teaching students at high school level in Switzerland, for the sake of commodity, I do not make a difference between the two…) – user58319 Jun 28 '15 at 12:24
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: is it that there is a semi-vowel (so, consonant) sound in "billion" and a diphtong sound in "champion"? – user58319 Jun 28 '15 at 12:26
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For Cambridge Dictionaries Online, at least, part of the answer may be to do with syllabification. First note that the transcriptions are phonological, as indicated by the slashes //, not phonetic, which would be indicated by square brackets []. That means that the phonetic realization might be identical even if the phonological representation is different (for any given speaker).

The generalization seems to be that the sound is represented as a /j/ if it is in the onset of a syllable, but as /i/ elsewhere. For instance:

  • pantheon: /ˈpæn.θi.ən/
  • grammarian: /ɡrəˈmeə.ri.ən/
  • Paralympian: /ˌpær.əˈlɪm.pi.ən/

vs.

  • Italian: /ɪˈtæl.jən/ (with /-i.ən/ given as an alternative)
  • minion: /ˈmɪn.jən/
  • onion: /ˈʌn.jən/

and

  • galleon: /ˈɡæl.i.ən/
  • bullion: /ˈbʊl.i.ən/
  • Euclidean: /juˈklɪd.i.ən/
  • Syrian: /ˈsɪr.i.ən/

In the first set of words, the sound is not in the onset of the syllable, but in its nucleus. In English syllabification, the nucleus must be vocalic. In the second set, the sound is in the onset. Since in English syllable onsets must be consonantal, it has to be represented as /j/. In the third set, the /i/ is in a syllable on its own, and hence is the nucleus of the syllable.

Words with only one consonant before the /i/ or /j/ can be divided into either two syllables or three (as /ɪˈtæl.jən/ vs. /ɪˈtæl.i.ən/ shows). Words with two consonants before the sound can only be divided into three syllables with /i/ as nucleus, since English syllabification prefers to balance consonants across syllables in certain ways. So /ˈpænθ.jən/ is not a well-formed syllabification.

As for whether there is a genuine contrast between champion and million, I think there may be in some instances. I can pronounce the latter either as /ˈmɪl.i.ən/, with three syllables, or as /ˈmɪl.jən/, with two, but /ˈtʃæmp.jən/ just sounds wrong to me. YMMV, though.

  • To me, /ˈtʃæmp.jən/ sounds fine, but /ˈmɪl.i.ən/ sounds wrong. – Peter Shor Jun 29 '15 at 2:31
  • Excellent discussion. Quite technical, but thorough. I might have just said that it takes less reconfiguration of the mouth to get from L to Y than to get from P to Y. – Brian Hitchcock Jun 29 '15 at 5:25
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When the letter "e" or "i" comes before another vowel letter, and neither vowel letter represents a stressed vowel, we may find either a non-syllabic glide [j] or a syllabic unstressed [i~ɪ] vowel (what is called the "happy" vowel; some speakers may also perceive the transition between the "happy" vowel and the following vowel as a glide, and in some accents of British English, the process of "compression" may cause [i~ɪ] to coalesce with a following [ə] to become a falling diphthong [ɪə]).

There is a series of blog posts by John Wells that discuss this topic: "rising diphthongs", "derived semivowels", "intervocalic semivowels".

Apparently, some speakers do use a trisyllabic pronuniation for words like "million" and "billion", although these variants are uncommon. In "intervocalic semivowels", Wells writes:

ˈmɪli‿ən means “two pronunciations are possible: a slower one ˈmɪl i ən, and a faster one ˈmɪl jən. The uncompressed version is more usual in rarer words, in slow or deliberate speech, and the first time a word is used in a given discourse; the compressed version is more usual in frequently used words, in fast or casual speech, and if the word has already been used in the discourse.”

In the second edition, the entry for million read ˈmɪl jən. Responding to a user’s criticism, I changed this in the third edition to ˈmɪl jən ˈmɪl i‿ən. This allows for a trisyllabic version as well as the usual disyllabic one.

Following my syllabification, you should sound it as ˈmɪl first and then jən.

If the compression symbol were not present, thus ˈmɪl i ən, that would imply that only the three-syllable pronunciation was possible. But that would be wrong, because a two-syllable pronunciation of million is certainly not only possible but also usual.

The syllabification scheme that Wells alludes to permits consonants and consonant clusters to be syllabified with a preceding stressed vowel even when this leaves the following syllable without an onset. Because I don't own the LPD, I can't say how Wells transcribes the pronunciation of "champion", but I don't think it is possible to exclude the disyllabic ˈtʃamp jən on theoretical grounds. To me, this pronunciation seems possible.

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