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The Top 5 Problematic Sounds in American English: The “ey-ii” and “eh” vowels

This is Part Five of the Top 5 Problematic Sounds in American English. As I mentioned in the previous blog, your native language may differ from another person reading this blog, so these sounds may or may not be challenging for you. But based on my experience with accent modification, most people have difficulties with these same 5 sounds, regardless of their native language.

In Part Four, I discussed the vowel pair /i/ and /ɪ/, with /i/ as the tense vowel (more tension in the throat, face, and tongue when it is produced) and /ɪ/ as the lax vowel (more neutral, less tension). In today’s blog, I’ll talk about another tense/lax vowel pair: /e͡ɪ/ and /ɛ/.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you see the IPA symbols for /e͡ɪ/ and /ɛ/ is that /e͡ɪ/ has two symbols, while /ɛ/ has only one. This is because /e͡ɪ/ is a diphthong vowel, which means it is one sound that is created by the combination of two vowels (di = two). It begins as one vowel /e/ and moves towards another vowel /ɪ/. In fact, when you say the vowel /e͡ɪ/, you should feel movement of your articulators (your jaw, lips, and tongue) as you move through the sound. (I’ll discuss the concept of diphthongs in a later blog, in case it is a bit confusing!)

The first sound of /e͡ɪ/

The first sound of /e͡ɪ/

The /e͡ɪ/ vowel is in the words may, late, and date. To say /e͡ɪ/, start with your mouth open and jaw dropped down. Your tongue should be lower in the mouth, with the tip resting just behind your bottom front teeth. Your lips should be neutral to begin or slightly spread apart. It should look like this:

Then as you progress to the second part of the sound, your jaw should close, your tongue should rise just a bit, and your lips should spread into a smile. You should also feel tension in your tongue, lips, and underneath your chin (place your hand under your chin to feel this). It should look like this:

The second part of /e͡ɪ/

The second part of /e͡ɪ/




Like I mentioned above, the /e͡ɪ/ is considered a tense vowel because of the extra tension that is felt within the articulators and under the chin. This tension should help you to distinguish the /e͡ɪ/ sound from its lax counterpart, /ɛ/.

While the /e͡ɪ/ vowel is a called a diphthong, the /ɛ/ vowel is called a monophthong (mono = one). This means the /ɛ/ vowel contains just one sound. This may seem like it should be an easier vowel to produce, but that may not be the case because this vowel may not be in your native language. This may actually make it more challenging to pronounce correctly!

The /ɛ/ vowel is in the words red, head, and bed. To make the /ɛ/ sound, drop your jaw a bit lower than for /e͡ɪ/. Your tongue should also be lower in your mouth and more relaxed. If you place your hand underneath your chin, you should feel less muscular effort than with /e͡ɪ/. Your mouth should look like this:

The vowel /ɛ/

The vowel /ɛ/

front vowels.png

This drawing may help you to see the difference in tongue positioning for /e͡ɪ/ and /ɛ/. Notice how the tongue and jaw are lower for /ɛ/.

When you first practice these two vowels, try to exaggerate the movement with /e͡ɪ/ until you are positive that you can feel it. Also use a mirror so that you can see the movement in the jaw and tongue. And remember - there shouldn’t be any movement with /ɛ/ because this vowel is a monophthong - just one sound. /e͡ɪ/ is a diphthong - it starts as one vowel and moves to a second vowel.

Here are some practice words and sentences to help you with /e͡ɪ/ and /ɛ/:

My mate and I met at the party.

I’m sorry I’m late; please let me inside.

My husband paid my bail, so I rang the bell.

The red ants have raided my pantry!

I can’t go on this date because I’m in too much debt.

Thanks for reading my blog! And let me know if you need more help with the /e͡ɪ/ and /ɛ/ vowel sounds!