Recently in GermanLanguage.SE, somebody who tried to explain how to pronounce the German vowel "ü" claimed that some speakers of English may use a slightly rounded vowel in Greek loan words like "physical". The dictionaries that I have consulted don't give any alternative pronunciation besides /ɪ/. Are there really native speakers for whom the first vowels in "physical" and "fizzy" are different?

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    I think somebody on GermanLanguage.SE didn't know what they were talking about. It seems vanishingly unlikely to me that any native speaker could or would distinguish between the first vowel sounds in "physical" and "fizzy". Nov 15, 2016 at 14:14
  • Do we have any Kiwis in the house? I used to know someone who could very easily have pronounced it 'fuzzycal', but not sure if fizzy and fuzzy then blend...
    – Spagirl
    Nov 15, 2016 at 14:22
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    I am doing some research. Having just asked several RP English teachers to say pterodactyl and physical and then anthill and fizzy there is definitely some difference in vowel quality there. in RP all of those words contain a KIT. Whether this is due to rounding I can't tell. I'll let you know what I find. Nov 15, 2016 at 14:28
  • Some Americans use a vowel sort of like "ü" in words like duke and nuke. (This would actually make a good explanation of how to pronounce "ü" for those Americans, except it would leave everybody else baffled.) But I don't think I've ever heard a rounded vowel substituted for /ɪ/. Nov 15, 2016 at 14:30
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    @John: there are some people who use [y] instead of [ju] after a /t/, /d/, or /n/. I'm one. I pronounce dune as [dyun], or [dyn] if I'm speaking fast, and not [djun] or Doone [dun]. But few is still [fju]. I know I'm not the only one. The rest of you Americans don't even notice it because you think of [y] as an allophone of [u], and it sounds like [u] to you. Nov 15, 2016 at 17:43

2 Answers 2


No, the 'y' in Greek loan words like this is invariably just a short 'i' (/ɪ/) sound. In German itself they tend to pronounce these 'y's as ü. This is also the case in Danish, I believe.

  • Well, "y" can also represent the other sounds of the letter "i", such as /aɪ/ (phylum) or /i/ (embryo). But yeah, it's never a rounded vowel.
    – herisson
    Nov 15, 2016 at 14:48
  • It's the case in Norwegian and Swedish too. I wonder if this is what the person was thinking of? Nov 15, 2016 at 17:06
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    @KateBunting No, the person was (or rather is) really convinced that "short ü sounds like the y in English physical" and that "loan words (e.g from greek) are the rare cases where an English speaker may be accustomed to ü in English".
    – Uwe
    Nov 15, 2016 at 17:35
  • @KateBunting It's not really the case in Norwegian and Swedish. Danish does have a pure [y] there, but Norwegian and Swedish have slightly diphthongised and rounded/protruded qualities: Norwegian tends toward something like [iʷː], Swedish something like [iʷjʷ]. Nov 16, 2016 at 8:31

"Physical" and "fizzy" have the same vowel phoneme in the first syllable: /ɪ/. Any phonetic difference in quality would be allophonic.

In words from Greek, the letter Y represents the same vowel sounds that I can represent: /ɪ/ (as in sympathy), /aɪ/ (as in phylum), /i/ (as in embryo), /ə/ or /ɜ/ (as in martyr, myrrh). I wrote a more detailed answer talking about the pronunciation of Y as a vowel here: Pronunciation of letter y: asylum vs syrup

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