Vowel /eɪ/ phoneme (long vowel)

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The vowel /eɪ/ is a long vowel as in face. It is a diphthong, or double vowel, consisting of the mid-front vowel /e/ plus the short short vowel /ɪ/. Phonologists usually use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols /eɪ/ for this vowel. This is generally contrasted with the short vowel /ɛ/ as in dress in teaching. The pure vowel /e/ by itself is not used in most varieties of English. In this article, slash marks like /ɪ/ indicate a phoneme, while angled brackets like <ɪ> indicate a letter or spelling, and square brackets like [ɪ] indicate a precise phonetic transcription, e.g. indicating a phonetic variant of a sound.

1 Linguistic description

The long vowel /ei/ is not just a longer version of /ɛ/, but is qualitatively different – it is glided or diphthongized, i.e., it is actually a double vowel, or two vowel sounds blended together into one phoneme.

  • This vowel is a diphthong, or double vowel consisting of two simple vowels blended together, but /eɪ/ functions as a single long vowel and a single phoneme or unique sound of English. Thus, it is a long vowel because it is a diphthong.
  • It consists of the vowels /e/ plus /ɪ/, which are pronounced in the front of the mouth. The /e/ vowel is a mid-front vowel, being pronounced with the tongue blade in the middle of the front mouth space, between the /i/ sound as in fleece and the /ɛ/ as in dress. The vowel short vowel /ɪ/ is pronounced with the tongue slightly higher, between /e/ and /i/.
  • The /e/ component is phonetically the core of the diphthong, while the /ɪ/ is an off-glide. The off-glide component in many standard varieties of English may actually be slightly higher than the /ɪ/ by itself.
  • The /eɪ/ sound is unrounded, i.e., the lips are not rounded, but since a rounded version of this vowel would be very rare in other languages, this is not a concern for language teachers or language learners.
  • The /eɪ/ sound can vary in different dialects of English, e.g., within and between North American, British, Australian, and other varieties. For example, in Australian, the first component of the vowel is slightly lowered, so that the vowel is more like /æɪ/.
  • The symbol /ɪ/ in /eɪ/ is a small capital, lower case /I/. Because of dialectal variation and differences in how some linguists transcribe this sound, the vowel /eɪ/ may also be written as /ei/, /ey/, /ɛɪ/, /ɛi/ or /ɛy/. It should not be written as /e/ or /e:/, as this can give learners the incorrect idea that it is a monophthong like the /e/ or /ɛ/ in their first languages.

1.1 Cross-linguistic comparison

In most languages, the mid-front vowel is a pure /e/, as in most European languages. A few languages have the /eɪ/ diphthong as a regular phoneme, such as Quebec French, Dutch, and Mandarin Chinese (e.g., the syllable mei). It also occurs in Korean, but mainly in English loanwords such as 베이컨 beikŭn "bacon." The monophthong or simple vowel /e/ by itself does not occur in English, except in certain dialects; for example, the /eɪ/ sound in Scottish dialects may be pronounced as /e/, as in the stereotypical Scottish pronunciation of "I'm going to take the train."

1.2 Teaching /eɪ/ production

Students need to learn that this is not just a long version of the /ɛ/ vowel as in dress, nor is it the pure /e/ vowel as in their first language (L1). They can be taught to first say /e/ and then say /i/ (as in we), and then they can blend them into a single sound (this is especially fine, since the /ɪ/ in the /eɪ/ is often slightly higher than /ɪ/ as a simple vowel as in fish). For many learners, teaching will often involve training students to hear and produce the contrast between /eɪ/ as in bait and /ɛ/ as in bet.

Confusingly, dictionaries in Korea use /e/ for the short vowel and /e:/ for the long vowel /eɪ/. This is confusing and incorrect, and lead Koreans to misunderstand their pronunciation. The short vowel should be written /ɛ/, and the long vowel should be written as /eɪ/ or something similar such as /ei/, /ey/, /ɛɪ/, or /eɪ/.

2 Practice materials and activities

Minimal pairs, which contrast a target sound with a sound that is a separate phoneme, are typical starting points for production and practice activities, particularly comparing /æ/ and /ɛ/. These sounds can be contrasted with each other in minimal pair contrasts in syllable-initial or word-initial position, and in medial position, i.e., in the middle of a word. This sound does not generally occur in word-final position. For more on types of minimal pairs activities to train listeners to discern and produce sounds, see the following.

  1. Pronunciation: Listening exercises
  2. Pronunciation: Production exercises
  3. Pronunciation: Controlled activities
  4. Pronunciation: Interactive activities

2.1 Minimal pairs

Here are a few minimal pairs for practice; see below for more.





2.2 Practice sentences

  1. Never trust a layman to buy you a computer, or you may end up with a lemon.
  2. Do not wait there in wet clothes, and don’t sell sails when it’s raining.
  3. That’s a tell-tale sign that you’re really wasting your time.
  4. A horse named Ned neighed in the neighboring lane next to the main red rail.
  5. Fred felt frayed, as he fretted his daily trips to Delhi. He was especially prone to spatial disorientation while flying.
  6. Lately, he’s had to leave his dogs at home – a den full of Great Danes.
  7. Clement is a claimant in a court case against James, because James takes his gems from his safe.
  8. Jane hasn’t attained the required documents to attend the conference in Maine. So Eddie aided her in the painful process of penning a new paper for a later conference.

(Author: Kent Lee)

2.3 Tongue twister

I know a boy named Tate
Who dined with his girl at 8:08.
I’m unable to state
What Tate ate at 8:08.
Or what Tate’s tête à tête ate at 8:08[1].

2.4 Practice poem

The following poem is one that I wrote to practice this sound. This deals with exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, and the possibility of life on such planets.

'The explanets poem'

If you're looking for alien planets in space,
Finding a livable one is quite a chase.
You want a place that life can sustain,
You want a place that can would be humane.
In the air, not too much propane or methane,
Not an atmosphere too painfully insane,
Not where poison falls as rain,
Where from breathing you would have to abstain.
Naturally, in the star's habitable zone is great;
Too near and it'll bake, which is not a good fate;
Too far and the planet's just a lifeless deadweight.
On the surface, you want some good terrain,
And plate tectonics would be a big gain –
Unlike Venus, where the ancient plains
Every half billion years awake from their refrain,
To erupt and melt and destroy that surface once mundane.
Better to have tectonics and a few earthquakes;
Otherwise evolving life there would just bring heartaches.
Besides carbon, a surface with water and silicates and perchlorates
Make things more fun, and you'll need some way to aerate.
So many things necessary for life to awaken,
One little mishap and all hope is shaken.
When can we go to such a place, I just can't wait.
And what would the aliens there think of an earthling primate?


(Author: Kent Lee)

3 Tense-lax alternations

The /eɪ/ vowel is subject to tense-lax alternations in words of Latin origin. When /eɪ/ is in final or near-final syllable position as in nation (in penultimate position, i..e., second from last), and a suffix is added, the /eɪ/ is shifted to pre-penultimate position, and it laxes to an /æ/ sound, as in national, nationality. See vowel tense-lax stress alternations for more. Some typical examples include:

























national, nationality




























4 More minimal pairs

The following can be used for practice, contrasting /eɪ/ word-initially and medially (middle of word) with /ɛ/. No word-final comparisons are included, because short lax vowels like /ɛ/ generally do not occur word-finally in English. There is perhaps one word with final /ɛ/: the discourse marker meh, which contrasts with may.

initial medial
ate eight

ebb Abe
Ed aid
eddied aided      
edge age
etch H
L ail
M aim
S ace
X aches

abet abate

attend attained
beck bake
beckon bacon
bed bayed
bell/belle bail
belly bailey
Ben bane
Bess base
best based
best baste
bet bait
bled blade
bread braid
Bren brain
breast braced
cell sail / sale
cellar sailor
cent saint
chess chase
chest chased / chaste      
Clement claimant
contend contained
Delhi daily
dell dale
den Dane
Fed fade
fell fail
femme fame
fen fain
fend feigned
fetid fated
fettle fatal
fez phase
fleck flake
fled flayed
Fred frayed
fret freight
gel jail
gelled jailed
gems James

gen Jane

get gait / gate
heaven haven
heck hake
held hailed
hell hail
impel impale
Jenny Janie
ken cane
leaden laden
leading lading
lemming laming
lemon layman
Len lain
lens lanes
less lace
lest laced
let late
letter later
Med made
men main
Met mate
Metz mates
misled mislaid      
Ned neighed
Nell nail
nettle natal
Neville naval
pen pain
pepper paper
pest paced
pest paste
pet pate
phlegm flame
pled played
Pres praise
quell quail
read raid
red raid
redder raider
rend rained
rest raced
ret rate

rev rave

Rex rakes
scent saint
sec sake
sedge sage
sell sail
sell sale
send seined
sent saint
set sate
sever savor
shed shade
shell shale
sled slayed / sleighed      
special spatial
sped spade
spread sprayed
stead staid
stellar staler
tech take
tell tail
teller tailor
tent taint
test taste
testy tasty
tread trade
trend trained
tress trace
vend veined
wed wade
wedge wage
weld wailed
well wail
wells Wales
wen Wayne
wend waned
wens wains
west waist
wet wait
wetter waiter
wreck rake
wren rain

5 Notes

  1. ‘Tete a tete,’ or originally, ‘tête-à-tête’ = /ˈteɪtəˈteɪt, ˈtɛtəˈtɛt/ or originally in French, /tɛtaˈtɛt/ = literally “head to head” - i.e., a private conversation or interview of two persons.

5.1 See also