What is the /iː/ sound?
The /iː/ sound (in ‘free’, ‘me’ and ‘keep’) is what’s called a Closed Front Unrounded Vowel. Now, that technically tells you everything you need to know about the sound. But let’s dive a bit deeper.
How long is the sound?
It is a long sound, as you can see from the little /ː/ symbol in the phonetics. That means that you need to stretch it out over a long time, and you emphasise the vowel itself, not the consonants around it.
Try saying ‘be’ (/biː), emphasising that nice, long ‘ee’ at the end. Try feeling the difference between ‘sheep’ and ‘ship’. Ship is the /ɪ/ sound, a much shorter version. So try and contrast the shortness of ‘ship’ with the length of ‘sheep’.
What does the tongue do?
The tongue should feel as though it’s quite high in the mouth, and pushed forward, close to the teeth. It should feel like there’s only a small space between your tongue and your top teeth. This is ‘front’ part of the ‘Closed Front Unrounded Vowel’ that we found earlier.
Notice the difference between the /ɔː/ in ‘more’ and the /iː/ in ‘me’. Big change!
What does the jaw do?
The jaw is closed, meaning that the teeth are almost touching each other as you make this sound. They shouldn’t be clenched in too tight, but you shouldn’t see much of a gap when you look at this sound.
Try and notice the difference between other vowel types. Compare ‘key’ and ‘car’. Notice that the /iː/ in ‘key’ is far more closed than the /ɑː/ in ‘car’.
What do the lips do?
The lips are unrounded, meaning that they are pretty relaxed as you make this sound.
Does this change between American and British?
This sound does not change between General American and Received Pronunciation. Phew. Easy peasy.
Which accents find this sound hard?
Many languages do not contain this sound, so they find it difficult. Many Latin languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish don’t use the /iː/ sound. Eastern European languages, as well as Russian, do not use this sound. Many Asian languages do not use this sound either, so they will find it hard.
However, many people who speak English as their first language find this a little simpler.
Are there any funny rules I need to bear in mind with this?
Not really. The sound slightly changes when it goes onto the ends of words, as in the unstressed /i/ in ‘family’, ‘really’, ‘totally’ and ‘city’. It becomes not quite as long.
What spellings is it usually used on?
‘Ee’, in ‘free’, ‘see’ and ‘bleed’.
‘E’, in ‘be’ and ‘me’.
‘Ea’ in ‘read’, ‘plead’, ‘lead’.
‘Ey’ in ‘key’.
And many others. Comment below if you can think of more!