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The sound [​ɪ] is said to be more open than [i] and so is [e]. I have no difficulty in distinguishing between [i] and [e], or between [i] and [I]; however, I can hardly distinguish between [​ɪ] and [e] when both appear as short vowels, such as represented by the letter I in ich and letter E in Mechanik. To me, they sound too alike in words. Could anyone help with this?

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    I in ich and E in Mechanik sound very different. What's the question exactly? – Em1 Apr 27 '16 at 11:59
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    Yes, I do think these sounds are distinguishable. You should even hear a clear difference between E and I in "Mechanik". – Em1 Apr 27 '16 at 12:30
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    Wow, telling someone that he should hear something is really helpful. – Carsten S Apr 27 '16 at 21:09
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    @em1: whether one can distinguish two sounds depends very much on what your mother tongue is, so I think this is far from an unclear question and I vote to reopen. – Gerhard Apr 28 '16 at 0:10
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    Related. Also related – Jan Apr 29 '16 at 18:44
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As you correctly say, both [​ɪ] and [e] are more open than [i]. However, [e] is even more open (so the order, starting from the least open, is [i] – [​ɪ] – [e]), and there is another difference: While [i] and [e] are both front vowels, [​ɪ] is produced a bit further back (“near-front”). You can best compare the different positions of all vowels on a vowel chart.

IPA vowel chart from Wikimedia Commons

Native German speakers will usually be able to distinguish between [ɪ] and [e] as the difference is in principle phonemic, although the two sounds rarely appear in opposition (mostly due to short [e] being quite rare by itself). If you can’t distinguish them but want to be able to, there is only one way for you: You need to train to hear the difference.

2

[e] appearing as a short (!) vowel is a very rare case. In standard measures, one would consider the unrounded front vowels of German to be [i:] and [​ɪ], [e:] and [ɛ], [ɛ:] (and [ɛ]) and technically also [a:] and [a]; always grouped into pairs of the long and short vowels. These are represented by the letters i, e, ä and a and their variants, respectively. (Note that the distinction between long e and long ä, i.e. [e:] and [ɛ:] is gradually losing its phonemic status; the two are slowly being used interchangeably even though minimal pairs such as Ehre/Ähre exist.)

It is of strong phonemic importance to distinguish [i:]/[ɪ] and [e:]/[ɛ], i.e. the two inside each pare: bitte/biete and Beet/Bett serve as minimal pairs. You should also be able to distinguish between [ɪ]/[ɛ] and [i:]/[e:]; that is also a rather important distinction (bette/bitte and biete/bete). But those for corners of a rectangle are rather far apart, and vowel length helps in the [i:]/[ɪ] and [ɪ]/[e:] cases.

Short [e] only appears in unstressed, unreduced syllables, meaning that there is another (stressed) syllable that you can use to recognise words. Take the following cases (stress marked with an acute accent):

  • Mechánik. *Michanik does not exist and only in rare cases could I imagine a sentence where ambiguity to mích (although that is stressed) is possible.

  • lebéndig. Again, the same thing. *Libéndig does not exist. I can actually think of a possible way to have those sounds follow each other across word boundaries, but it is too extreme, so I won’t repeat it.

Much more commonly, unstressed (short) e is reduced to the shwa [ə] as is almost always the case with the prefix ge-.

So all things considered, distinguishing between short [e] and short [ɪ] is not much of an issue.


And finally, note that Mechanik does not have to be pronounced with [e]; I (being from the South) say /mɛ'xanɪk/.

1

I don't know what your native language is. But since you asked in English, I give you some English examples (and of course German examples):

[​ɪ]

This is the "near-close near-front unrounded vowel", or "near-high near-front unrounded vowel". You find it in this Englisch words:

  • bit [bɪt]
  • ink [ɪŋk]

It is in this German words:

  • bitte [ˈbɪtə]
  • Mitte [ˈmɪtɘ]

[i]

"close front unrounded vowel", or "high front unrounded vowel"

English:

  • beat [bt]
  • happy ['hæpi]

German:

  • Mine [ˈmnɘ]
  • Idiot [iˈdi̯oːt]

[e]

"close-mid front unrounded vowel", or "high-mid front unrounded vowel"

English:

In English this vowel is very rare. You find it only in the pronunciation of Australian English and in some diphthongs:

  • bed [bed] (only australian english)
  • hate /heɪt/

German:

  • Seele [ˈzlə]
  • beten [ˈbtən]

addendum

To a German native speaker, [​ɪ] and [i] sound very similar, like two variations of the same sound. Also ​[e] and [⁠ɛ⁠]​ sound in German ears like two Versions of the same sound. But between [​ɪ/i] and [e/⁠ɛ⁠]​ we hear a big difference. They can't be mixed up in German language.

And so I give you also an description of [⁠ɛ⁠]​:

[⁠ɛ⁠]​

This is the "open-mid front unrounded vowel", or "low-mid front unrounded vowel"

In English:

  • let [lɛt]
  • men [mɛn]

In German:

  • nett [nɛt]
  • Hälfte [ˈhɛlftʰə]

If you have problems with [e], try to speak it as [⁠ɛ⁠]​. [e] is half way between [i] and [⁠ɛ⁠]​.

  • thanks, my difficulty is with [e] ; I am no native speaker of English; I learned 'bed' as [bɛd], which is different from the Australian accent; I learned the diphthong [ei] as an integral glide rather than a juxtaposition of [e] and [i] and this is why I cannot isolate the [e] sound from the diphthong [ei]; besides, I think [e] is pronounced in English more open than in German : the German [e] is closer to [i] while the English to [ɛ] ? – Lynnyo Apr 29 '16 at 7:26
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    @Lynnyo: What is your native language? – Hubert Schölnast Apr 29 '16 at 12:58
  • my native language is Mandarin Chinese; I didn't expect any one here would explain the difference between [e] and [I] in terms of Chinese phonology ... – Lynnyo Apr 30 '16 at 7:32
  • @Lynnyo: [​i] is in “七”. ​[​ɪ] is in “冰”. [e] is the first vowel in “鼻”. [ɛ] is in “蛇”. And here are some links to chinese descriptions: zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/閉前不圓唇元音 and zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/次閉次前不圓唇元音 and zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/半閉前不圓唇元音 and zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/半開前不圓唇元音. – Hubert Schölnast May 1 '16 at 9:48
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Just as in English, the difference is much more audible in stressed syllables than in unstressed ones. Don't listen to "Mechanik" to get an idea of [e]; listen to "Messer" instead.

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    Messer is yet another pronunciation, namely /ɛ/, often similar or identical to "ä", which is yet another letter. How is this useful? – Em1 Apr 27 '16 at 12:02
  • @Em1 Not for me, and apparently not for Lynnyo either. – Kilian Foth Apr 27 '16 at 12:14
  • @KilianFoth If you use the same first vowel in Messer and Mechanik, do you use /ɛ/ for both or /e/ for both? (The second looks unlikely to me.) Is the first vowel in Messer and Mechanik the short version of the vowel in Schnee, or is it different? – Uwe Apr 27 '16 at 13:08
  • @Uwe (...looks up IPA table...) I use /ɛ/ for both. I had no idea this would be controversial. As far as I can tell, this is the 'short' version of Schnee, but I seem to remember that 'short' isn't really a a proper linguistic term. – Kilian Foth Apr 27 '16 at 13:31
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    @KilianFoth No, the standard High German pronounciation has /e:/ in "Schnee", /ɛ:/ in "Ähre", /e/ in "lebendig" or "Mechanik", and /ɛ/ in "Messer" or "nässer". Dialects differ, though (e.g., Swabian). – Uwe Apr 27 '16 at 14:46

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