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
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 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
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 12:30
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    Wow, telling someone that he should hear something is really helpful.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 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
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 0:10
  • 3
    Related. Also related
    – Jan
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 18:44

5 Answers 5


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.

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    In terms of training your ear, a good approach is to find a few pairs of words that differ only in terms of the two vowels that you want to learn. Then have a native speaker repeat the pairs of words until you begin to hear the difference. I have done this many times helping native Mandarin speakers to distinguish various consonants in English (for example by repeating "buck", "bug" ... "buck", "bug" ) Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 12:26

[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/.


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):


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]


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


  • beat [bt]
  • happy ['hæpi]


  • Mine [ˈmnɘ]
  • Idiot [iˈdi̯oːt]


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


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/


  • Seele [ˈzlə]
  • beten [ˈbtən]


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]​:


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] ?
    – Eunice
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 7:26
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    @Lynnyo: What is your native language? Commented Apr 29, 2016 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 ...
    – Eunice
    Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 7:32
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    @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. Commented May 1, 2016 at 9:48

German [eː] and [ɪ] are very similar to each other in vowel quality. They mainly differ in vowel quantity. Consequently, when [eː] is shortened to [e] in an unstressed syllable, its pronunciation is virtually identical to [ɪ]. As chirlu has explained, this does not pose any problems since it is in stressed syllables where the two vowels are distinct. They seldom occur in unstressed syllables, and I do not believe there are any minimal pairs. Furthermore, as Jan has said, unstressed [eː] may be opened to [ɛ].

The similarity of German [eː] and [ɪ] can be demonstrated by taking recordings of words with [eː] and [ɪ] and artificially lengthening or shortening them (e.g. with Praat).


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
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 12:02
  • @Em1 Not for me, and apparently not for Lynnyo either. Commented Apr 27, 2016 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
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 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. Commented Apr 27, 2016 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
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 14:46

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