What is the origin of “long long i” before voiced consonants (the [ai] of wide, while, & tribe) versus “short long i” before unvoiced consonants (the [ʌi] of white, wife, & wipe)? When did this difference appear? Is it just a secondary distinction, or are there minimal pairs for these two diphthongs?

Obviously the distinction is not present in all accents—though its presence in most leads me to believe it's not a late arrival—and yet I've never found a dictionary that distinguishes them.

  • This seems more fitting for linguistics. However, such a site has not yet come into being.
    – Thursagen
    Jul 6, 2011 at 5:37
  • 1
    Are you sure it's in most accents? I would have said it was rather limited in distribution.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 6, 2011 at 14:21

4 Answers 4


I believe this is called Canadian Raising.

Canadian raising is a phonetic phenomenon that occurs in varieties of the English language, especially Canadian English, in which certain diphthongs are "raised" before voiceless consonants (e.g., /p/, /t/, /k/, /s/, /f/).
/aɪ/ (the vowel of "eye") becomes [ʌɪ] or [ɐɪ], while the outcome of /aʊ/ (the vowel of "loud") varies by dialect, with [ʌu] more common in the west and a fronted variant [ɛʉ] commonly heard in Central Canada. In any case, the /a/-component of the diphthong changes from a low vowel to a mid-low vowel ([ʌ], [ɐ] or [ɛ]).

enter image description here

Below is an excerpt of the possible origin paragraph in the Wikipedia article.

Some have hypothesized that Canadian raising may be related historically to a similar phenomenon that exists in Scots and Scottish English. The Scottish Vowel Length Rule lengthens a wide variety of vowel sounds in several environments, and shortens them in others; "long" environments include when the vowel precedes a number of voiced consonant sounds. This rule also conditions /aɪ/ in the long environments and /əɪ/ in the short environments. Significantly, though, the Scots Vowel Length Rule applies only before voiced fricatives and /r/, whereas Canadian raising is not limited in this fashion; thus, it may represent a sort of merging of the Scots Vowel Length Rule with the general English rule lengthening vowels before voiced consonants of any sort.

The most common understanding of the Great Vowel Shift is that the Middle English vowels [iː, uː] passed through a stage [əɪ, əʊ] on the way to their modern pronunciations [aɪ, aʊ]. Thus it is difficult to say whether Canadian raising reflects an innovation or the preservation of an older vowel quality in a restricted environment.

  • This is certainly related, but just as certainly not quite what I'm asking about. +1 anyway.
    – Jon Purdy
    Jul 6, 2011 at 5:52
  • @Jon, thx. Do you mean I've dealt with the [ai] vs [ʌi] part of the question but not with the "long long" vs "short long" aspect? I have had no time to delve into the "Scottish Vowel Length Rule" yet. I'm not even 100% sure this is actually related... :( Jul 6, 2011 at 15:28
  • @Alain, @Jon: If you look at the Geographic Distribution section of the article Alain quotes, it says that the geographic distribution of this shift in the vowel long i extends to large sections of the U.S. as well. I believe the change in length (although not quality) of many vowels before voiceless consonants occurs in most American dialects. Jul 6, 2011 at 15:45
  • Hey, wow, this is some cool stuff @AlainPannetierΦ! And yes, I know I am getting to it rather late. Dec 3, 2014 at 17:15

In most dialects of American English, vowels are shorter before unvoiced consonants. If this is what you're hearing, then in your dialect the length difference seems to have induced a change in the quality of the diphthong as well. I believe that in some dialects, this determines whether long o and long a are diphthongs or not.

To find a minimal pair, you'd have to find two words with VCV, where the first vowel is long i, the consonant is unvoiced and the division into syllables differs. For example, I think bright-eyed and high tide form a near-minimal pair.

  • sounds like a consistent explanation. +1. Also I've noticed that in the GVS diagram, the [ʌi] diphthong is the step just before the current [ai] step in Br English. This is well shown on the leftmost vertical path of the GVS chart at WP but I can't make sense of it all. May be you can. Jul 6, 2011 at 15:55
  • @Peter: This looks to be the rest of the story. The article mentions GA and RP, which are widespread enough to've led me to believe that most accents have this. I wouldn't call it allophony as such, because GA has the minimal pair writer–rider where both /t/ and /d/ are realised as [ɾ]. The article on Canadian Raising brings up further complexities: for some (myself included), rider does not rhyme with spider. Interesting stuff.
    – Jon Purdy
    Jul 6, 2011 at 17:52

As a native of East Yorkshire, England, this difference has always interested me. In that area, we have the same difference in diphthong-length between, say, 'site' and 'side' as in RP English. But in WEST Yorkshire, they're both pronounced long. I'd always thought that it was semantically unimportant until I realized that in some varieties of North American English, the length really matters. Oddly, it was the writer/rider pair that I noticed. This difference seems to be maintained even when a non-English [in that position, at least] consonant is involved: ask most English speakers to say "Third Reich", and they'll say "Reich" with a 'short long-I' /ɑɪ/, because the 'ch' /ç/ is an unvoiced consonant.

  • 1
    Interesting insight, and welcome to ELU! Dec 3, 2014 at 17:16
  • 1
    A PS to my first ELU post: the length of English 'long I' was mentioned in the European Union General Court this week: Broadcaster BSkyB won round 2 in its trademark infringement battle with Skype ... The EU General Court found on Tuesday that the two names are too similar and could cause confusion. The court said that there were a number of contributing factors to its decision - in particular, their “degree of visual, phonetic and conceptual similarity”. Skype has attempted to argue that the “pronunciation of the vowel ‘y’ is no shorter in the word ‘skype’ than it is in the word ‘sky’.” May 6, 2015 at 14:31

I'd always learned it was allophonic and based on voicing, but I know of one minimal pair: -sider (e.g. "this DVD is a two-sider") and cider: Realized the old pun "Dixon Cider" doesn't work in my (western Montana) dialect any more than "I scream for ice cream". I'm not going to transcribe them here; it seems like anyone who could explain them, should know which is which!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.