I often talk with friends using the phone and I'm not sure how to correctly pronounce the word "beach". Some people hear it as a "bitch". It really makes me upset! How do I pronounce these words correctly? What is the difference in pronunciation?

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    I happened across a village in County Durham the other day called North Bitchburn, but the nearby hamlet which presumably forms the 'Southern' part is called Beechburn, standing on Beechburn Beck. This suggests to me that the distinction wasn't always as clear-cut as it is now. – Brian Hooper Feb 21 '11 at 3:10
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    I had a roommate in college from Greece. For him these words were all the same: seep sip sheep ship. – GEdgar Jul 4 '11 at 22:21

Beach contains a long i vowel and bitch contains a short i vowel. These two are an example of a minimal pair, a pair of words which is almost the same except for one sound (in this case the long/short i sound). There is a huge list of computer-generated minimal pairs at John Higgins's website.

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    Also, the vowel in 'beach' is a diphthong, the 'i' followed by 'y'. – Mitch Apr 2 '11 at 2:27
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    Really? I'm not nearly as good with phonemes as a lot of you folks here, but I would have thought the vowel sound in beach was closer to a long e. Miriam Webster shows it as \ˈbēch\ – T.E.D. Sep 29 '11 at 13:53
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    @Mitch: that depends on what dialect you're speaking. For many Americans, it's a simple vowel. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '12 at 13:31

My slavic language speaking colleagues all have this problem, because these languages do not make a distinction between tense vowels and lax vowels. The sound in beach is a tense [i], and the sound in bitch is a lax [ɪ]. These sounds differ in two major ways.

First, the sounds are made in slightly different places in the mouth. The sound in [ɪ] is very close to [i], but is a little bit towards [e] (like the sound in "day"). So if you say [i] and hold it and then move your mouth to make [e], then somewhere along that path is something close to the sound [ɪ].

Second, the sounds differ in length. All tense vowels are slightly longer, and lax vowels are slightly shorter. If you have trouble figuring out the right way to articulate the sound, then the vowel length can be very helpful to at least help distinguish these sounds — even if it is not perfectly native sounding.

  • Part of the difficulty may be that you are pronouncing other short i sounds as ee, so your friends grow accustomed to that as your pronunciation. Then in their ears, your ee sound in beach gets translated to a short i even though in this case you pronounced it correctly. – moioci Sep 14 '10 at 5:40
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    French people have the same problem. With sheet for example... – Benjol Sep 29 '10 at 12:22

If you are like me, you need to listen to the two words to understand the difference.

This video explains how to pronounce "beach" and "bitch":

Real ESL Video #22 - Bitch or Beach? Pronouncing i and e!

Do you know how to pronounce "reach" and "rich"? It's the same thing.

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    That link is perfect. I think when it comes to pronunciation, audio links work far better than a bunch of words on a page explaining the difference. – OneProton Sep 19 '10 at 2:00
  • I don't think it's a case of having to be like you. I'd say it's impossible to correctly pronounce a distinction you can't hear. – Benjol Feb 10 '11 at 9:24
  • @Benjol - the alternative to listen the pronunciation is to read the phonetic symbols if you understand them well (which I don't) – b.roth Feb 11 '11 at 9:32

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