For words like ear, year, hear etc., most dictionaries only give the pronunciation /-ɪr/ (with the vowel as in the word it). But I think some native speakers pronounce them /-ir/ (with the vowel as in the word eat).

Is my observation correct? If so, are both pronunciations acceptable, and what is the difference between them? Are they specific for any dialects?

  • 2
    In general American English, and in fact in most American dialects, they are two different ways of pronouncing the same phoneme. There are no words which are distinguished by /-ɪr/ in one and /-ir/ in the other. Some people use one pronunciation, some people use the other, and some people might even use /-ɪr/ before vowels and /-ir/ before consonants. Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 13:51
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    relevant: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/72065/…
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 19:09

1 Answer 1


Before the phoneme /r/, the English contrast between lax and tense vowels is neutralized.
That means no English words exist that distinguish lax /ɪr, ɛr, ɔr, ʊr/ from tense /ir, er, or, ur/.

This varies in many dialects; in Rhode Island (and many other NE N.Am locations), for instance,
speakers distinguish the words Mary /'meri/, merry /'mɛri/, and marry /'mæri/; but in the
Midwest all three words are pronounced /'mɛri/.

In practical terms, anticipating the /r/ in hear changes the vowel to something that is different from both the normal tense and the normal lax vowel, and the same thing happens to beer.
Native speakers normally can't tell the difference. That's what "neutralization" means.

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    "Neutralization" doesn't mean that native speakers normally can't tell the difference.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 14:40
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    But in this case, many native speakers don't hear the difference. Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 17:24

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