So what is the difference between SHIIP and SHeeP?

Last week I asked Pronunciation Studio’s Instagram followers whether they consider SHIP or SHEEP to be longer, or whether they are roughly the same length. Here are the results:

The answer I was hoping for was 3) Similar Length. 

In pronunciation teaching I normally encourage learners to ignore the length of vowel sounds and to focus instead on mouth position. Most importantly of all – the position of the tongue.

One of my favourite moments in class is when we say SHIIIIIP with a really long sound and realise that it hasn’t miraculously grown legs, walked onto land and started bleating. It’s still a boat no matter how long you make the vowel sound. This is proof that vowel length matters less than position.

The same is true if you invert this – make the sound in SHEEP really short and the woolly mammal doesn’t suddenly take to the high seas.


So tongue position is the main feature that distinguishes the sounds. But were 83% of our followers wrong about the length? Is SHEEP not only a different position but also a longer sound?

Well, there’s only one way to find out. Here’s me saying them into a microphone:

As you can see, the lengths are 0.415 seconds for SHIP and 0.416 seconds for SHEEP. A close call indeed.

But this is a small sample size, and I may deliberately lengthen SHIP and shorten SHEEP just to prove my point, I’m capable of worse. So let’s see what the dictionaries do, here’s Oxford Learner Dictionary (OED):

So the OED has SHEEP slightly longer (we’re talking 16% here).

How about Cambridge dictionary:

so again we’re seeing a slightly longer (13% to be precise) pronunciation of SHEEP.

So it’s fair to say that SHEEP is longer than SHIP, and so I will grudgingly agree with the 1456 people who voted for it. However, I agree more with the 206 people who voted for Similar Length!

Enough splitting hairs for today (or should that be wool)?