Gip or Geep?

Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching /ɪ/ vs /i:/?

Everybody who has studied English pronunciation has, at one point or other, bemoaned the lack of spelling to sound rules (see this collection of poems). Pairs of words with similar spelling but different pronunciation are plentiful (cough/dough, heard/beard, good/food), but increasingly from a teaching perspective, I feel these archaic elements of English spelling are exaggerated and English spelling can be very useful to the student of pronunciation. Nonsense words are a brilliant way of exploring this in class.

In last Saturday’s advanced pronunciation class we had the following conversation:

A “Gip seagle feen spicken leaj?”
B “Seef jick hib neep biller.”
A “Feegen bick?”
B “Sif gick dip heaz.”

It is clearly nonsense, but there is only one way to pronounce the vowel sounds within. This highlights the difference between the pair of vowels /ɪ/ vs /i:/. The mid-close /ɪ/ sound is almost always spelt < i > as a strong vowel, so ‘jick’, ‘hib’ and ‘gip’ must be pronounced with /ɪ/. In contrast, the close /i:/ sound is almost always spelt with two vowels < ee > or < ea >, but is never spelt with just one < i >, so ‘heaz’, ‘seef’ and ‘leaj’ are definitely going to be /i:/ even if we have never seen the words before.

This simple spelling rule can radically alter a student’s speech. Many students speak native languages where a written < i > would correspond to a close /i/ sound, so breaking the assumption that this will happen in English is a huge step to solving the ship/sheep problem that so many students struggle with.

Along with the spelling rule, students need to learn the correct mouth positioning for the two vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/ as shown in this vowel grid. For a full explanation see this earlier blog post.

Nonsense Words

Try pronouncing the nonsense words below – the pronunciation should be clear from the spelling:

gip leab seag sib chif feek piv veize vim sheev tib bim