The pronunciation of -Y endings is strange for 2 reasons:
- The mouth position has changed from [ɪ] in RP to [i] in GB.
- Most dictionaries are using non-phonemic /i/ to represent them.
This is the only non-phonemic sound that most publishers use in dictionaries.
It seems that nobody is quite sure how to transcribe it, a situation I explored in a video I posted on Youtube last week:
So although phoneticians refer to this as the HAPPY vowel sound, I imagine it might feel a little UNhappy given its precarious and confusing status.
But the ambiguity around weak vowel sounds doesn’t end with /i/. Modern English has 4 weak vowel sounds:
I don’t include /ʊ/ because it has now been replaced by /ə/ in weak syllables in GB English.
All of these weak vowel sounds have strong versions, and for three of them, the strong versions are classified phonemically as long vowels:
And this leads us to a strange feature of the phonemic chart. If schwa /ə/ is a phoneme, why isn’t /i/ and why isn’t /u/?
After all, words like HER, WERE and SIR reduce to schwa in the same way that HE and SHE reduce to /i/ and YOU and WHO reduce to /u/:
So really, if we’re being consistent, we can do away with /ə/ altogether and just have /iː,uː,əː/.
But this doesn’t look good. The schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, using length marks when it is weak would make phonemic transcriptions look ridiculous.
The alternative, of course, is to do away with length marks altogether…
… I’ll definitely write some more about that in a later post.
But for now, I’ll leave you with a clip of this week’s new AXNting video which covers the 4 English weak vowel sounds.
Video clip taken from the AXNting course.