A friend prompted me to look up the pronunciations of the homophones "be" (IPA: /bi/, /biː/) and "bee" (IPA: /biː/). We found that there are two ways to say "be" -- one is short and the other (the strong form) is long (see this OALD link). Having lived in North America for almost a decade now, it seems to me that the long form is rare in North American usage, but that might just be me. My questions are:

  1. Am I wrong?
  2. If the short form is common in standard American usage, when would you it and when would you use the long form?

EDIT: Examples:

Long form:

  1. Edit: I am He who said unto the world 'Be!' and it was.
  2. "You'd better be there!".

Short form (at least in British English): 1. "I'll be there in a minute" when the speaker isn't trying to emphasize anything

  • I can't seem to come up with different pronunciations of 'be'. Can you give examples of sentences with one and the other pronunciation? (the noun 'bee' for the insect is -always- sounded 'long', though) – Mitch May 20 '12 at 17:26
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    This may be a problem of mine with not recognizing a distinction because I live with it (as an AmE speaker), but both your examples "You'd better be there" and "I'll be there in a minute" can have 'be; stressed or not, and the vowel articulation is the same. There's nothing special, long or short, here, just stress/accent. Asking which is more common is like asking how common is emphasis. (which could easily be less than non-emphasis, corroborating your experience. Also, your first sentence "Be and it was" doesn't make sense to me. – Mitch May 20 '12 at 17:53
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    @Mitch: I guess that's what it is ... stressed and unstressed. – rrufai May 20 '12 at 18:11
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    Can you please supply IPA? – tchrist May 20 '12 at 19:31
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    It could just be because I'm a Brit, but this question makes no sense to me as I'd pronounce all of the examples given here in exactly the same way. – Christi May 20 '12 at 20:57

I believe the distinction between the phonemes /i/ and /iː/ is a British phenomenon; it doesn't exist in General American. In General American, the vowel /i/ may vary somewhat in length depending on how much stress you put on it, whether it's followed by a voiced or voiceless consonant, and other considerations, but it's all the same phoneme, and there is no sharp difference between /i/ and /iː/ the way you find in some British dialects.

In some British dialects, Andy's and Andes form a minimal pair distinguished mainly by the length of the vowel /i/—see the comments on this entry of John Wells' phonetic blog. This is not true for General American, and I suspect there are no American dialects where this happens.

  • I think you’re right. I think this is just a lengthening (or shortening) affect due to phrasal stress patterns. I don’t believe it to be phonemically distinct, because I don’t think there are minimal pairs. I don’t think of the vowels in machine and happy as different phonemes; just perhaps different allophones, if that. – tchrist May 20 '12 at 22:48

The strong form of the verb "be" and the noun "bee" are indeed homophones in standard BrE and AmE. They are both pronounced as /biː/ (The Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary - Roach, Hartman, and Setter 2006; The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary - Wells 2008). The Oxford Dictionary for Current English (Upton, Kretzschmar, and Konopka 2003) gives /bi/ for AmE.

Try saying the be all and end all or What'll it be? It might help.

For those who like playing with language, try saying the following words and pay attention to your vowels (which one is the longest/shortest?):

bee - bead - beet

You'll be surprised. :)

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