What's the exact difference in the 'pi' sound between 'happiness' /ˈhæp.i.nəs/ and epicentre /ˈep.ɪ.sen.tər/ that prompts the Cambridge Dictionary compilers to use a diffrerent vowel code for each case? More generally, what's the exact difference between the /ɪ/ sound and the /i/ sound, is it just in the duration (in some contexts?)? Is it just a historical variation that's lingereing? Or is there something more to it?

Edit: After posting this question, I hit these two blog posts that are discussing the issue in detail:

One takeaway is that the /i/ sound was introduced to denote possible alternative pronunciations /ɪ/ and /i:/.

After reading the two posts, I still have questions:

  • What's the point of using the /i/ in the middle of a word, I'm not aware that there are alternative pronunciations for happiness?!

  • Is there still accents around that pronounce happy as /ˈhæp.i:/? And why is it not just considered allophonic variation anyway? When I listen to the standard dictionary pronunciations they seem to be somewhere between an /ɪ/ and /i:/ in duration, but in real life I hear native speakers normally pronounce it as /ˈhæp.ɪ/.

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    It's the difference between "peat" and "pit". Although I suppose there may be people who pronounce "pi" in "epicenter" as "pee", in which case the distinction would be lost. – eyeballfrog May 29 '19 at 5:24
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    No it's not. That's /piːt/ vs /pɪt/, and that's not what we're discussing here. – BazAU May 29 '19 at 5:43
  • Not all phonologists/linguists/teachers use the length mark. See "The Undesirability of length marks in EFL phonemic transcription", (1975), by Jack Windsor Lewis. Especially in transcriptions of American English, it's common to represent the vowel in peat as /i/. The pronunciation of the vowel in words like "happy" varies between accents; a three-way distinction in transcription between /iː/, /i/ and /ɪ/ lets you include more information for multiple accents at once, but specific accents only have a two-way distinction if you take stress into account. – herisson May 29 '19 at 6:02
  • The introduction of /i/ as distinct from /i:/ for English phonemes was one of the stupidest things that phonologists have ever done. (a) there are apparently a small number of English speakers who have three different phonemes: /i:/, /i/, /ɪ/. Given the number of people where this happens, it should have been ignored. We don't use two IPA symbols because New Yorkers pronounce class and clap differently. (continued) – Peter Shor May 30 '19 at 13:19
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    @Janus: what makes it confusing is that this is the only IPA symbol used this way in English. We don't use three IPA symbols for cat, bath, and father, which is probably a much better parallel. – Peter Shor May 30 '19 at 16:59

The /i/ sound is just the short version of /i:/; without the ː length mark it is shorter. Just as you can find /i:/ in words like peat, the /i/ sound is found in words like happiness where the vowel is shorter. In epicentre, you can find an /ɪ/ because, in many accents, such as the Cambridge Dictionary's main focus of BrE, it is not any sort of ee sound, but an ih sound, as found in hit.

That said, there are different ways of utilizing IPA, and as @sumelic has mentioned, some linguists choose to steer clear of the length mark. I'm writing from a sort of standardized, Oxford Dictionary-type point of view─BrE, length marks etc. I can't really speak for AmE, but, as you spelt epicentre and not epicenter, I guess this doesn't really apply ;)

See the OED's helpful IPA page for more info and AmE insight.

  • But /i:/ can be unstressed too: proceeds /ˈprəʊ.siːdz/. And if it's just a matter of stress, why should there be a distinction in the phonetic transcription, because other vowels are not using such a distinction! – BazAU May 29 '19 at 6:26
  • @BazAU Correct. I have realised this was false─it's a matter of length. – Lordology May 29 '19 at 6:28
  • @BazAU: In some traditions, words like "proceeds" are transcribed with some stress on the second syllable: /ˈprəʊˌsiːdz/ (Balogné Bérces Katalin calls this "tertiary stress", in contrast to the more widely recognized secondary stress that occurs on a syllable preceding the accented/primary-stressed syllable). I made a post about it here: english.stackexchange.com/a/433879/77227 – herisson May 29 '19 at 7:32

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