When transcribing English vowels phonetically, long vowel sounds are usually written with two IPA vowels when the vowel is at the end of word or syllable:

paper /pei-/

But sometimes long vowels are written as a single, short IPA vowel instead; for example:

be /bi/

Why is this?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Armen Ծիրունյան, jimm101, user140086, sumelic, curiousdannii Nov 17 '16 at 11:54

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    You mean why /biˈfɔː/ and not /bɪˈfɔː/ or /biˈfɔː/? Because the people who decide how to write down phonetic transcriptions in dictionaries got carried away and are showing fine distinctions in pronunciation that lots of U.K. speakers don't even make. – Peter Shor Nov 16 '16 at 15:41
  • @PeterShor I think OP is asking why some "long" vowels are represented with two glyphs and others with just one. – StoneyB Nov 16 '16 at 16:16
  • @StoneyB I don't think that's what the OP is asking about. There is a rule in British English that will not allow short vowels in stressable unchecked syllables. It sounds like the OP has understood only half of this rule ... – Araucaria Nov 16 '16 at 16:59
  • @araucaria Check OP's Title question... I think this is about the "long V"-"short V" distinction made by pedagogues teaching spelling, which OP is trying to relate to IPA and IPA-like representations. But I'm coming from US pedagogical practice, and if UK practice is different I may very well have misunderstood. – StoneyB Nov 16 '16 at 18:15
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    @Araucaria: I've decided not to touch this question any more, so I won't re-instate the edit myself, but I won't roll back again if someone else re-edits the question. I voted to close as "unclear", and I wish it had been closed before it was answered. But now that it's answered, I don't know what the best course of action would be. – sumelic Nov 16 '16 at 19:23

The traditional terms "long" and "short" for teaching English vowels were borrowed from Latin grammar back in the days when Latin was the only language for which formal grammatical discourse was available. These terms don't represent the linguistic facts of English. That is, some English vowels do have a longer duration than others, but the primary feature which distinguishes English vowels is not length, as it appears to have been in Latin, but "quality", the sound imposed by the variable shape of the oral cavity.

The representation of English vowels in IPA and similar systems of notation does represent the linguistic facts:

  • "long a", "long i" and "long o" are diphthongs—they consist of a glide from one sound to another—so they are represented with two glyphs each, /eɪ/, /aɪ/, /oʊ/ (or /əʊ/).

  • "long e" and "long u", however, are monophthongs—they consist of a single more or less homongeneous sound—so they are represented with single glyphs, /i/ and /u/.

Note that diphthongs are in fact, by default, longer than monophthongs, and that "long e" and "long u" are, in fact, usually pronounced with a longer duration (and consequently are often represented with a colon, or a glyph similar to a colon, to represent the increased length: /iː/, /uː/. That, no doubt, is why early English grammarians adopted the terms "long" and "short".

  • "Short a, e, i, o, u" are also monophthongs, but they have different qualities than the long versions, and are represented with different glyphs: /æ/, /ɛ/ or /e/, /ɪ/, /ɒ/, /ʊ/ or /ʌ/ (depending on which sound your teacher names a "short u").

  • There are also a whole bunch of vowels which don't have long/short distinctions, or even names, in traditional grammar, because they didn't occur in Latin (or at least weren't discussed by Latin grammarians). Some are diphthongs: "ow" /aʊ/, "oy" /ɔɪ/, and the vowels preceding /r/ in non-rhotic dialects like BrE, /eə/ as in "fair", /ʊə/ as in "cure", /ɪə/ as in "fear". Others are monophthongs: "aw" /ɔː/, "ah" /ɑː/, and the destressed central vowel /ə/.

  • I though "long" and "short" were terms carried over from Middle English and not Latin (although the "long" and "short" vowels in Middle English matched the ones from Latin pretty well.) – Peter Shor Nov 16 '16 at 16:56
  • In British English the short and long vowels form two distinct classes with their own phonological properties. This is why TRAP is considered a short vowel in English even though it is almost as long as some of the long vowels. It phonologically belongs to the short vowel family. Often specific long and short vowels have a systematic relationship with each other. So, for example, we might see a long vowel when it appears in a short word and then its short relation when we add suffixes to that base. So the TRAP vowel and the FACE vowel, for example, have a special relationship in the system. – Araucaria Nov 16 '16 at 17:02
  • So, in other words, I don't think that OP is using the same type of description of long and short vowels that we use in school English lessons. However, until OP can give us the lowdown on what they are angling at I'll give you my +1. I do feel sorry for the OP. It's hard to describe this stuff especially if you need help with it because you don't understand it! :/ (Btw, when I said British English, I really meant SSBE, of course. Sorry) – Araucaria Nov 16 '16 at 17:09
  • @PeterShor I don't think we know of any discussion of English phonology, spelling or grammar before the 16th century, so if the terms derived from ME they were employed in the context of Latin grammar. But it's quite true that the Great Vowel Shift occurred during the LME-EModE centuries. – StoneyB Nov 16 '16 at 18:04
  • @StoneyB: The OED shows the terms were used in the context of Latin in the 15th century, and for English and French in the 16th century. So I would assume that the labels for English long vowels made more sense (and corresponded better with Latin) when they were first used, which was probably some time before the OED has citations for them. – Peter Shor Nov 16 '16 at 18:18

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