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Let me first give a big fat disclaimer that I essentially know no German at all. Being an IPA junkie I just decided to read about German orthography and (epicfailingly) try to read out some German for fun.

I have a problem with the long E (/e:/) sound. I hear it as /i:/ in some words and /e:/ in some words, but nothing I can find supports this. For example, by all spelling rules, and even by the pronunciation key in my dictionary, "Heer" and "hehr" are homophonous and pronounced [heːɐ̯].

Somehow, I hear "Heer" as [hiːɐ̯] and "hehr" as [heːɐ̯]. Google Translate's text-to-speech seems to support this.

So there seems to be a class of words where /e:/ gets pronounced /i:/ to my ears. Note that I cannot find anything online that supports that /e:/ ever turns into /i:/...

My (probably unreliable Chinese) ears hear [i:] in LEben, MEmel, strEben, etc. Dictionaries all agree on [e:], and no orthography description seems to mention e pronounced as [i:] anywhere.

I am fairly sure that this isn't just a mishearing. Is this a very recent sound change? Hitler (sorry, no better example) seems not to use it, but that might be because he is Austrian?

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There is no Austrian language and e gets never pronounced i. But e can make a long i: Bier, Tier, Liebe, Sieb, etc. –  Endoro Feb 28 at 3:57
    
de.wiktionary.org uses a pronounciation which clearly uses /e:/. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/De-Heer.ogg –  Toscho Feb 28 at 8:06
    
Have you tried Forvo? de.forvo.com/search/lieben de.forvo.com/search/leben –  elena Feb 28 at 9:36
    
Can you provide a link to where you're hearing "Heer" pronounced as [hiːɐ̯]? I think that would be really interesting. (Of course, it might just be a case of an over-eager English native speaker who's too confident about his German pronunciation... let's see) –  Mac Feb 28 at 10:04
    
Interestingly, just the wiktionary file that @Toscho sounds as /i:/ to me. I stretched out the vowel in the word and it seems to sound like /i:/ to me: soundcloud.com/eric-dong-1/iiiiiiiiiiiii –  user54609 Feb 28 at 11:53
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3 Answers 3

I think you might be reading (sorry, hearing) too much into this. As an (admittedly, Austrian) native speaker, "Heer" and "hehr" are perfect homophones. There should also be no [i:] in any of the other words you mention.

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/eː/ and /i:/ are quite different

  • /eː/ as in Leben, Heer and streben
  • /i:/ as in lieben, hier, and Striemen

The only I can think of is, that there is slightly more "breath" in Heer (and also hehr and mehr) in comparison to Leben and Streben, because of the h.

Any other sources than Google text-to-speech?

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You're right about Google translate but their rendition of "heer" is flawed. It should sound exactly the same as "hehr". Whether you want it or not, your brain will "top down" on your perception. What I mean by that is the following. You see a certain spelling and your brain associates a certain sound. If you see the spelling and hear the rendition the audio you expect kind of mixes with the audio you hear. Your brain has to categorize it somehow and the result is "i" because that's what the "ee" spelling usually sounds like in English, which is as I understand not your mother-tongue, yet, you're "at home" in the language.

If you want to find out, if there really is a difference, have a friend play back a trustworthy rendition (not Google, try Leo.org) to you at random without you seeing the spelling. I wouldn't be surprised if the difference is gone.

EDIT:

There is of course a variation in the realization of the sound so some renditions may be closer to "i" than others. Depends on the context and of course on the speaker.

That's where the top down process of the native speakers kicks in so even if someone tells you that it is a clear "e" that doesn't mean that it is. You'd need to compare spectra to objectively judge that. All native speakers including me have read your question here and we're all thinking the same thing "There ain't no difference". But that is only because our brain "smoothes" out the one that might be there. You have to be really analytical to turn that off. Either way, I think there is no systematic deviation that would make "heer" different by default

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English having ee as /i:/ doesn't explain why I hear Leben as almost homophonous to Lieben. –  user54609 Feb 28 at 14:49
    
Also, Finnish ee is a very clear /e:/. –  user54609 Feb 28 at 14:50
    
@user54609... why doesn't it? I mean, I am not saying that this explains it but it is a possibility and your dismissing it so quickly makes you no different than people that tell you that you hear "wrong". Ultimately to answer the question you'd need to make a spectral analysis of several renditions of "heer" and "hehr". Only then can you obtain an objective result for personal judgment will always be influenced by to down processes. –  Emanuel Feb 28 at 19:56
    
@user54609.. also, your question as I understood it was about a supposed difference between two German sounds. Whether or not the Finnish "e" is closer to the centroid of IPA doesn't matter at all –  Emanuel Feb 28 at 19:58
    
I understand what you mean. So if I speak German, and pronounce Leben as Lieben, I would be easily misunderstood, correct? What if I use a slightly lower /e/, more to the direction of ä? –  user54609 Feb 28 at 19:58
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