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Sink and Pink - How Do You Pronounce the I?

A customer wrote us with a question about the vowel sound in the word sink:

I am teaching Foundations Level A Lesson 33 to my son. The spelling list is tripping me up. I say "sink" with a long /ē/ but the list says "all first sounds." The same with "ink" and "link." What am I doing wrong? Is it my dialect?


Yes, this has to do with dialect! Dictionaries list the vowel sound in these words as a short /ĭ/ (the first sound of I). The same is true of words like sing and bring. However, in some regions of the U.S. the vowel sound in some of these words is pronounced closer to a long /ē/.

That is the short answer. If you'd like to know more about why these sounds vary, read on. If you'd just like some tips for teaching these words to your kids, skip to the end!

Exploring Sounds: /ĭ/, /ē/, and everything in between

There are a couple of factors we need to consider to understand this question of how these words are pronounced and why:

It depends on where you live

Since dictionaries and most English dialects identify the I in these words as short, we teach and mark them this way in Logic of English materials. However, this is a pronunciation that varies quite a bit by regional dialect, and some people pronounce the I closer to its third sound, /ē/, in this context. This is not wrong; pronunciation of lots of sounds, vowels in particular, varies by dialect, and this is normal. (If you'd like to see a lengthy and animated discussion on what is the "normal" pronunciation of these words, check out this discussion thread on the Well-Trained Mind Forum.)

Where these sounds are formed in the mouth

The sounds short /ĭ/ and long /ē/ are formed with a similar mouth position. Say each of these sounds and feel where in your mouth they are formed. Short /ĭ/ is more relaxed and formed slightly lower, and long /ē/ is more tense. When most English speakers say pink or sink, in reality they say a sound somewhere between short /ĭ/ and long /ē/, though an individual's pronunciation may be much closer to one or the other.

The reason this sound changes from a typical short /ĭ/ has to do with where we form the next sounds in these words.

The voiced, nasal /ng/ sound (which we hear a bit of in -NK blends as well as in the phonogram NG) is formed in the top of your mouth, with the back of your tongue placed against the sides of the velum, or soft palate (Rogers 22), with the airflow moving through the nose. Linguists call sounds formed in this part of the mouth velar sounds. (The sounds /k/ and /g/ are also velar, because they are formed in the same place, but they are not nasal sounds.) So everything with this /ng/ sound is happening up at the top and back of the mouth. Say /ng/ and compare it with the sounds /n/, /g/, and /t/ to feel this for yourself.

Assimilation is the process by which one sound becomes more like another sound... [It] is a very common phonological process.

— Henry Rogers, The Sounds of Language

When we try to say the two sounds one after the other, the placement of /ng/ in the mouth causes the short /ĭ/ sound, which is formed lower and further back in the mouth, to move a bit higher in the mouth, towards /ē/. This can happen in words ending in NG, like sing and wing, but I think the additional /k/ sound at the end of sink and ink, often formed a bit further forward in the mouth than /ng/, increases the effect in many people's speech.

You can feel this yourself: Try saying /ĭ/ as in pick and then /ē/ as in peek to feel the difference in the placement of your tongue in your mouth. Then say /ng/ and feel where this is formed in your mouth. Which one is it closer to?

This change in the vowel sound is called assimilation, which is when the shape of a sound changes to become more like the next sound, formed closer to it in the mouth, in order to make the word easier to say.

Shades of Sound

This brings us to another language concept: allophones. Linguists say that English has 44 or 45 phonemes, or distinct sounds recognized as unique and used to convey meaning in our language. However, while English has 45 phonemes, any given English speaker uses far more than 45 sounds in his or her everyday speech; the exact way we pronounce a sound varies according to what other sounds we are saying around it. Allophones (from Greek: allos different + phone sound) are these variations within the pronunciation of a particular phoneme.

One of the amazing things about the human capacity for language is that we are able to recognize a range of very similar sounds as one sound. This is why you can understand what someone is saying even if he or she has a different accent than you do. This is much like the way we recognize shades of color, and identify many shades of red, for example, as “red.” When we are listening to spoken language our brains categorize shades of sound into phonemes we know.

What is the difference between a "sound" and a "phoneme," then? A phoneme is a distinct sound we've categorized as making meaningful distinctions in a given language. If you use a different phoneme, you have a different word; however, if you use a very slightly different sound, or allophone, that is still recognized in your language as the same phoneme, you simply have the same word with a slightly different pronunciation (Rogers 44). Imagine someone from the Southern US, someone from New England, an Australian, and a British person saying "I drove my car" — you'll hear the same recognizable sounds each time, but slightly different versions of those sounds.

This categorization of a nuanced range of sounds into specific, meaningful phonemes is also what allows us to use a simplified system of visual symbols, where 75 phonograms represent these 45 sounds. (For example, most US English speakers say a slightly different short A in "apple" than in "and," but we can recognize both as the short sound of A.)

What all this means in regard to pink and sink is that because most individuals pronounce the vowel in these words somewhere between a short /ĭ/ and a long /ē/ and these sounds are related, one person’s brain may categorize it differently from another’s. We see this as teachers from different regions at our trainings try to hear which sound they are saying. One person will hear the exact same speaker's pronunciation of pink as /ĭ/ and another will categorize it as /ē/. I experienced the same thing myself; since I think of it as a short /ĭ/, it never occurred to me that I was actually saying a slightly different sound until I discovered that some people thought of the sound as long /ē/ and began thinking more carefully about the sound I actually say.

Neither of these pronunciations is wrong, of course; thinking of it as a long /ē/ sound just makes it slightly harder to recognize and understand the spelling. So if you or your students hear this sound, here are some tips!

Tips for Teaching these Words

Kinesthetic awareness of sounds. First, encourage your students to feel how the sounds short /ĭ/ and long
/ē/ are pronounced. Have them feel the sound /ng/ and where it is in relation to these vowels. This should only take a few minutes, and in doing so, you will help them further strengthen their phonemic awareness and their understanding of how our spoken and written language works, as well as reassuring them that there are reasons behind our spelling and our pronunciation; they aren't random or illogical.

About Say-to-Spell

In say-to-spell, we emphasize any sounds that are unclear in everyday speech in order to provide students with an auditory picture of how the word is spelled.

Sound strange? You may actually do this already if, for example, you say /wed-nes-day/ to yourself as you write Wednesday. With the word sink, you would emphasize the short /ĭ/: "To help us remember how this word is spelled, we will say-to-spell /sĭnk/."

In Logic of English lessons, we use say-to-spell whenever we teach the spelling of a word with a sound that is distorted or obscured, as well as to indicate where the syllable break is found. The say-to-spell for each word is provided in the spelling list for your reference.

To introduce the concept of say-to-spell, explain that some words include a distorted sound due to dialect variation, changes in the spoken language over time, or schwa. In order to hear the individual phonograms more clearly, we will say-to-spell the word in a way that exaggerates the sound that is obscured, creating an auditory 'picture' of the word that we can remember when spelling it in the future.

Say-to-Spell. Then, when teaching the spelling word, use say-to-spell and exaggerate the short /ĭ/ to help them create an auditory picture of the spelling. (See the sidebar for more information on say-to-spell.)

Spelling Patterns (for later on). In Foundations, the goal is for children to understand how our language works and gain confidence in applying the phonograms for reading. However, if older children who are focusing more on spelling mastery have difficulty remembering how to spell these words, let them know that the sounds /ng/ and /ngk/ almost never follow an E in English. We don't have any words with the phonograms EE or EA before these sounds. There are a few with an E, such as length and strength, but it is always saying its short sound. (Did you think of the one true exception to that pattern? It is the word "English"!)

So if your students hear what sounds like it might be a long /ē/ there, they can be confident that it's actually a distorted /ĭ/ sound spelled with an I. Once you've helped your kids understand why this sound distorts in the words sink and pink, explaining that this happens very commonly can help them recognize which phonogram to use in future words. Again, this isn't something you need to emphasize yet in Foundations, but for older students it may be helpful to know.

I hope this helps! Thanks for the question!

Liz

More information

A great resource for those who would like to learn more about linguistics, the formation of sounds, and the variations in English sounds is Henry Rogers' The Sounds of Language: An Introduction to Phonetics (Harlow, England: Pearson, 2000). I have been reading it this year on the recommendation of one of our summer interns, who used it in a college linguistics course. It is complex stuff, but it is fascinating!

To learn more about the phonograms and spelling rules taught in Logic of English, visit www.LogicOfEnglish.com.