Why do the sounds in these words cause so much confusion – and embarrassment?!

The difference between Live vs Leave is usually clear. 

Live = inhabit. Leave = depart. 

The hard part is in pronouncing these words correctly:

Leave = leev

Live = lihv or l’v 

Most non-native speakers pronounce these words the same way, as “leev,” which results in confusing sentences like: “What time are you LIVING the party?” Or, “I LEAVE in New York.” 

But sometimes the “ee” (leave) sound is mistaken for the “ih” sound (live). This can make the word “sheet” sound like “shit,” or the word “beach” sound like “bitch.” So embarrassing! 

This happens because the “i” in other languages is not quite as long or stretchy as the “ee” sound in English. So what sounds like “sheet” to the non-native English speaker, may sound somewhere in between “sheet” and “shit” to a native speaker. Thus, the funny looks! 

Here’s how to make those sounds clear:

First, you need to know where to place your tongue. 

Let’s start with “leave”:

The ee sound in English is longer than the “i” sound in other languages. It is made with the tongue in the BACK of the mouth. Start with the “i” sound in your language – but then pull your tongue back, saying “EE-YES”. Good. Now, just say, “eey”. The tip of your tongue should be behind your lower teeth, while the back of your tongue is raised, to make the “yuh” sound. 

The “ih” sound in “live” is also called the “short i” It is made in the FRONT of your mouth. Point the tip of your tongue to the back of your upper teeth (but do not touch your teeth). Now, try saying “ship”. It should be a short sound, with your tongue relaxed. 

Another way to make the sound is to remove the vowel, like “sh’p.” 

Did you get it? Yes, that’s it!

So, the stretchy ee vowel sound in “leave” is made in the back of your mouth, while the short, relaxed ih sound in “live” is made in the front. 

More examples of the long e vs short i sound include:

  • He vs him (or “h’m”)
  • Cheap vs chip
  • Weak vs wick
  • Peel vs pill 

Can you practice pronouncing the above words?