10

I'm wondering about the "short i" vowel that exists commonly in American English in words like "India, tick, lid". Note, this vowel seems a bit unstable in English and gets merged with others in the American South and other places. IPA represents it as ⟨ɪ⟩. It's the near-close front unrounded vowel.

I have been told this vowel does not exist in French, but I swear I've heard it before. If I know it doesn't exist it will help me never accidentally say it.

Edit: Thanks to input, now that I now it's the near-close front unrounded vowel, I was able to look it up on wikipedia, and it says that it does not exist in French except allophonically in Quebec French. So I believe the answer to this one is "no, it does not exist, so I should endeavor to never say it". As an American I have a fierce tendency to use it in e.g. "s'il vous plaît".

  • It only gets merged with /ɛ/ in the American South before /n/ and /m/. Stick pin and ink pen are pronounced the same, but bit and bet remain different. – Peter Shor May 27 at 11:47
  • And it may be that for you, sill /sɪl/ is closer to the French s'il /sil/ than seal /siəl/, if you pronounce seal with a diphthong, like a lot of English dialects do. That's not a good excuse for pronouncing s'il as /sɪl/. – Peter Shor May 27 at 11:53
  • @PeterShor I'd be interested in knowing what dialects of English you have in mind for the /siəl/ pronunciation. The only diphthong I can think of in "seal" would be a rising one, /əi/, that I would associate with a London/Cockney accent where /i:/ is realised as /əi/. – user21018 Jul 20 at 7:20
  • @petitrien: some English speakers (I don't know which dialects) turn /l/ at the end of words like whole, feel, cool, whale into /əl/, effectively turning the vowel into a diphthong. (It just happens after diphthongs and certain long vowels). – Peter Shor Jul 20 at 11:30
13

No, standard French does not have the vowel /ɪ/ (near-close front unrounded vowel), which is the English “short i”. The vowel which is normally written with the letter I in French is a close front unrounded vowel, API symbol /i/. Its realization [i] is fairly stable across French speakers, at least in Europe.¹ Some Canadian speakers do pronounce [ɪ] in closed syllables.

The close vowel exists in English, but only as a long vowel [i:]. However, to French ears, the short, near-close vowel [ɪ] sounds so similar that many French speakers pronounce it as a short, close [i]. If French people pay attention, they'll perceive the near-close [ɪ] as between the close [i] and the close-mid [e] (and I think that's how it's taught in French schools).

Conversely, English speakers might pronounce the letter I as [ɪ] (near-close) instead of [i] (close) when it's unstressed. French speakers might not even notice. Note that French does not have phonemic (i.e. meaningful) variations on stress or length: stress comes solely from the word and sentence structure, and unstressed speech sounds boring but does not hurt comprehension. So if you're trying to pronounce French natively and your native language has meaningful stress, try to separate how you pick the vowel quality from whether it's stressed.

You may find the Wikipedia articles on English and French helpful. It's difficult for a layman to really understand what all these variations are, but most phonemes have an audio sample, and it at least gives a sense of what is (near-)identical or similar across languages.

¹ A small minority pronounce it in a more rounded way, sort of halfway towards [u], but this is nonstandard.

  • “The unrounded vowel exists in English, but only as a long vowel [i:].” Which unrounded vowel? You mention both a “near-close” unrounded vowel and a “close front” unrounded vowel, and it’s not clear which of those two (or, perhaps, a third “unrounded vowel” with no modifiers) you mean there (at least to me, who knows extremely little about either linguistics or French). – KRyan May 23 at 12:53
  • @KRyan Fixed, thanks. All the information is in the IPA, but [ɪ] vs [i] is hard to follow even if you have the right fonts, so I included short descriptions, but I picked the wrong adjective. – Gilles 'SO nous est hostile' May 23 at 13:12
  • Je me rends compte qu'on ne prête qu'aux riches. :) – Lambie May 23 at 14:27
  • Short, close, unrounded [i] does occur in English as well, though not as a phoneme – it is a very common realisation of the tense happy vowel. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 23 at 15:25
11

The French generally spoken in France does not have [ɪ] either phonemically or phonetically, and to my knowledge no variety of French would use it for the first vowel in « s'il vous plait » (though the /l/ often disappears, leaving a shorter first syllable).

To be clear — as you've since acknowledged — the terms "short" and "long" that we learn in elementary school in English are misleading when talking about vowels since they're not really related to length. So we can avoid that red herring of a path.

Canadian French1

To round out the standard answer above, some varieties of French do have this sound. The one I know best is Canadian French, in which [ɪ] is one of a series of lax realizations of the high vowels.

These are the high vowels in French:

  • /y/ : allophones [y] (only option in France) and lax [ʏ]
  • /u/ : allophones [u] (only option in France) and lax [ʊ]
  • /i/ : allophones [i] (only option in France) and lax [ɪ]

(Note that the exact realization varies by dialect. For [ɪ], I've heard [ɨ] and even a diphthong like [ɪj].)

These novel lax variants appear in closed syllables, i.e. syllables where the coda is filled by a consonant. Hence, you encounter paradigms like this:

citer [siˈte] ~ cite [sɪt]

lutter [lyˈte] ~ lutte [lʏt]

router [ʁuˈte] ~ route [ʁʊt]

According to Survenant's research in his answer, the contexts are even more limited: these lax variants only appear in closed final syllables. This isn't consonant with my own experience, but I bring it up in case I'm mistaken.

Where do these lax variants come from?

It's sometimes thought that [ɪ] arises in Canadian French because it occurs in English, and Canadian French is often accused of being influenced by English. This deserves a quick comment. While lexical, morphological, and syntactic borrowing across languages is common, phonetic borrowing is rare by comparison. Even heavy exposure to a non-native language rarely penetrates a person's phonetics; hence, accent often goes unmastered even by proficient learners.

Moreover, the influence of English would not account for [ʏ], which is not present in English; nor the distribution of [ɪ] and [ʊ] only in closed syllables, which is not the case in English; nor the existence of parallel changes in Belgian French, as mentioned by Greg.

Luckily, we have a better explanation for the appearance of these lax vowels. The pattern in which they show up actually exists in standard French. However, in standard French it only applies to the mid vowels, namely the pairs [o] ~ [ɔ], [e] ~ [ɛ], and [ø] ~ [œ]. By adding the set of high vowels, Canadian French extrapolates the pattern to new cases. This type of linguistic change is called "analogy", and it's relatively common. So this is a plausible hypothesis.2


1 A reasonable component of any answer about "French". If someone asked whether to pronounce /r/ at the end of a syllable in English, the answer would be "No in most British dialects, yes in most American dialects." If someone asked whether Christians baptize infants, the answer would be "Catholics do, most Protestants don't." Only by demoting one kind or the other could you reduce the answer to "yes" or "no", and from a descriptive linguistics point of view that's not an interesting exercise.

2 Incidentally, Canadian French is also distinguished by certain words with a final consonant absent in other varieties of French, including frette (< frais ?), litte (< lit), icitte (< ici), and toute where you'd expect tout. One could speculate about a symbiosis between this phenomenon and the extra lax vowels. If you create more contexts where a distinctive dialect feature appears, and this feature renders those contexts more salient, is that subconsciously leaning into your sociolinguistic identity?

  • 1
    Interesting - the pattern you describe for the /i/ and /u/ closed syllables can also be heard in Wallonia (Belgium) (although I think the lax variant for /y/ is rather a [ʌ] there ) – Greg May 22 at 9:09
  • 1
    @Greg Interesting. Are you sure about [ʌ]? That would be kind of a surprising allophone -- changing all three dimensions of the vowel, height, backness, and roundedness. Thus chute and English shut would sound the same? – Luke Sawczak May 22 at 10:22
  • 1
    No, you are right, I need to dig deeper to find the symbol for the matching sound. It is more closed than the [ʌ], halfway between [y] and [ə]. Note it is really a regional accent, the kind comedians may take for making fun of "lower-class" locals. See an example here of this accent (the young lady on the right uses this local accent but obviously exaggerates it, it is a comedy show...) . youtube.com/watch?v=ZLNHaNr7rK8 – Greg May 22 at 11:21
  • 1
    (cont): in the Youtube clip, around 02:00, the lady on the right pronounces "en plus" almost as "en pleusse". You can also hear how she says the [ɪ] in "vitamine" around 01:00. Also a famous piece on Belgian accents here - see how the comedian describes how to pronounce "après-midi" at the end. youtube.com/watch?v=hkklIaK6efI – Greg May 22 at 11:23
  • 2
    I read the question as not about any particular variety of French, just French. Parisian French does not have this sound, while Canadian French does. Nothing ambiguous about either observation. I didn't go into detail on the former point because it's already covered well by the other answers and comments. Besides, since that variety enjoys the reputation of being the standard one, it seemed fair to "round out" the picture, as I noted :) – Luke Sawczak May 22 at 17:53
4

Quebec French (French: français québécois; also known as Québécois French or simply Québécois) is the predominant variety of the French language in Canada, in its formal and informal registers. (Wikipedia, Quebec French article; see also Canadian French and this answer)


Tense vowels (/i, y, u/) are realized as their lax ([ɪ, ʏ, ʊ]) equivalents when the vowels are both short (not before /ʁ/, /ʒ/, /z/ and /v/, but the vowel /y/ is pronounced [ʏː] before /ʁ/) and only in closed syllables. Therefore, the masculine and feminine adjectives petit 'small' and petite ([p(ø)ti] and [p(ø)tit] in France) are [p(œ̈)t͡si] and [p(œ̈)t͡sɪt] in Quebec. In some areas, notably Beauce, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, and (to a lesser extent) Quebec City and the surrounding area, even long tense vowels may be laxed. (Wikipedia, Quebec French phonology article: listen to it.)

Therefore this ⟨ɪ⟩ (near-close front unrounded vowel) exists in French for some contexts with some varieties of the French language. Whether one chooses to use it or not if of no consequence whatsoever and is irrelevant.


Le français québécois, aussi appelé français du Québec ou simplement québécois, est la variété de la langue française parlée essentiellement par les francophones du Québec. (Wikipédia, article Français québécois ; voir aussi Français canadien et cette réponse.)


Les voyelles /i/, /y/ et /u/ subissent la règle de relâchement ([ɪ, ʏ, ʊ]) en syllabe fermée lorsqu'elles sont en fin de mot : « mur » se prononce [mʏːʁ] mais « emmuré » se prononce [ɑ̃myʁe]), « six » se prononce [sɪs] mais « système » se prononce [sistɛm], « lune » se prononce [lʏn] mais « lunatique » se prononce [lunatɪk] et « route » se prononce [ʁʊt] mais « dérouté » se prononce [deʁute]. (Wikipédia, article Prononciation du français québécois : l'entendre.)

Donc ce ⟨ɪ⟩ (voyelle pré-fermée antérieure non arrondie) existe en français dans certains contextes avec certaines variétés du français. Qu'on choisisse ou non de l'employer est absolument sans conséquence et hors propos.

  • certaines variétés du français?? Quelles autres, par exemple? – Lambie Jul 19 at 22:43
  • 1
    @Lambie La variété canadienne, comme l'indique une autre réponse. Je ne sais pas si c'est le cas en français acadien aussi. Je ne sais pas pour d'autres variétés régionales. Vu que certaines variétés du français ont cette prononciation il s'ensuit que la langue française en dispose, même si c'est le fait d'une minorité. – un3hiv3r Jul 20 at 8:56
1

There is no so called short i (/ɪ/) in French. The French i sound is short, of length approximately that of i in "pick", but of the very same quality of English or american double e as in "weed", or better "wheat" but shorter still than in this latter (the /i:/ sound is shorter in "wheat" than in "weed").

  • You get two points and I get a minus one?. Allow me to not that I have always thought that the participants here are very prejudiced... – Lambie Jul 19 at 22:46
  • @Lambie You do get 2 positive votes also, one of which is due to me; the minus 1 results from 3 negative votes that I do not understand: there is a very slight error in your explanation, from my point of view and I might be too strict, but that seemed to weigh little in the light of the remainder of this answer. Strangely enough, the comment I made concerning that point of detail has disappeared and I am sure I didn't remove it (/i:/ does not really exist in French, only the shortened form (/i/)). I think also that there is some instability of the British English /ɪ/. (field 1) – LPH Jul 20 at 6:57
  • @Lambie It is particularly prominent in the pronunciation of the y ending words (funny) but also in words such as "medium"; this has been recognized by J. C. Wells in his Pronunciation dictionary (Longman, RP and general American) in which those y's are said to have either the sound /ɪ/ or the sound /i/ (allophone of the French grapheme "i" in "petite"); there are therefore two short i's today in British English and they have been given two symbols in Mr. Well's dictionary: (field 2) – LPH Jul 20 at 6:58
  • @Lambie /ɪ/, that you always render by the vowel in "kit" (termed "short I strong pronunciation") and /i/ that you are free to render either by /ɪ/ or by /i/ ("weak pronunciation" is the term used). (end) – LPH Jul 20 at 6:58
  • Lambie gets a -1 from me for stating that French, the French language is also known as either international French or standard French, which is just inaccurate. The French language is the French language. One can choose to say that standard French FWIW doesn't have it but you can't state that French is merely standard French by definition, it's just wrong. Your answer is also wrong when it says "in French" but it does not try to make the point that French doesn't include varieties of the language. The top answers manage the nuances. – un3hiv3r Jul 20 at 8:50
1

I have read all the answers but I would like to add something (I am a French speaker).

When you read the French letter "i", indeed it´s not the same pronunciation as in english. BUT, the sound exists in certain graphic environments, for example in the word "laïc". "aï" will have the same sound as the english letter "I". ï (with umlaut) means you have to sound the first vowel (here "A"), THEN the second letter (here "i"). So at the end "aï" is pronounced the same as English I.

  • 1
    The sound of "ï" in "aï" is not /ɪ/ , and this latter is the sound of short I in English. – LPH Jul 20 at 19:47
  • @LPH: As an English speaker, let me say that some English dialects pronounce the sound of "i" in like as /ai/, giving laïc and like almost exactly the same pronunciation. (The diphthong is somewhat longer in French.) – Peter Shor Nov 4 at 14:34
  • @PeterShor I'm aware of that, yes, but all the diversity of dialects is something the non specialising student ( sort to which I belong) had better keep away from; those dialectal peculiarities such as for instance the cockney h and "th" are always surprising and interesting curiosities though. – LPH Nov 4 at 15:14
  • @LPH: Since English speakers don't really distinguish /aɪ/ from /ai/ (although they definitely distinguish /ɪ/ from /i/), I don't understand the point of your comment. – Peter Shor Nov 8 at 1:39
  • @PeterShor It seems unbelievable: the Longman pronunciation dictionary (2000) has only /aɪ/ for the strong pronunciation of i, and /i/, as for the i in medium, in which it is an option in RP nowadays (/ɪ/ or /i/ for that i, /ɪ/ being traditional and /i/ a recent addition), is not at all mentioned as an option for the second sound of that diphthong. – LPH Nov 8 at 2:16
0

No, French (aka international French on Wikipedia or standard French according to others) does not have the /I/ sound as in kit and bit. The French grapheme i (written letter) as in petite, is pronounced like /i:/. There are other realizations of the i grapheme as well.

That's why French speakers (and Spanish and Portuguese speakers too) cannot make the difference (unless taught or have a really good ear) between the minimal pairs like ship/sheep or bit/beat/beet or chip/cheap.

Whoever said French has that sound was misinformed. The /I/ sound is not "unstable" in English. Say minute, that letter i and that u are both /I/. And the /I/ sound exists in all varieties of English.

"In English, both in Received Pronunciation and in General American, the IPA phonetic symbol /ɪ/ corresponds to the vowel sound in words like "kit" and "English". It is one of the two vowel sounds we use in English for unstressed syllables, the other one being /ə/.1

In some dictionaries the vowel of KIT is written /i/. There is no confusion as long as the user knows the symbol for /iː/ (the vowel of FLEECE)."

English phonemes

French has the vowel sound /i:/ as in petite. The letter i is pronounced ee in some words as in beet/heat.

And here's the cutest guy in the world explaining it:

Huito répond pil-poil à la question dans Tutos avec Huito

  • Indeed you're right to point this out. The /i/-//ɪ/ distinction is such a productive one in all kinds of English that merging the two and producing French /i/ for both in a typical French accent can sometimes hamper understanding. – user21018 Jul 19 at 17:22
  • On Wikipedia, French refers to the French language, and not to "international French on Wikipedia or standard French according to others". The answer may be about international French or standard French, but French, both the language and the site, is not merely about those and the answer is inaccurate in that respect. – un3hiv3r Jul 20 at 9:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.