This merger is not usually stigmatized. Dictionaries usually represent the distinction and not the merger. While there are some dialects that have a variable distinction, there are very few dialects that maintain a complete distinction.
For people with the distinction [ɨ] is used in words spelled with i or e in an unstressed syllable. In accents with the distinction, the -ible and -able endings are distinct as [ɨbəl] and [əbəl]. Also the following words do not end the same way:
The kit-bit split is a split of EME /ɪ/ found in South African English, where kit [kɪt] and bit [bət] do not rhyme. It is not clear whether this is a true phonemic split, since the distribution of the two sounds is predictable: [ɪ] is used adjacent to velars (kiss, gift, lick, big, sing, kit), after /h/ (hit), word-initially (inn), generally before /ʃ/ (fish), and by some speakers before ; [ə] is used elsewhere (limb, dinner, limited, bit). Nevertheless because of the phonetic similarity of the two vowels in a word like dinner [ˈdənə], they may belong to the same phoneme /ə/, while the vowel of kiss, big, hit, inn etc. belongs to the phoneme /ɪ/.
The kit-bit split is perhaps the most distinctive feature of South African English, as many of its other features are also found in New Zealand English. In New Zealand English, however, a centralized realization of /ɪ/ as /ə/ is general: there is no split and the vowels of kit and bit are pronounced identically.
Because of the centralized realization of the vowel /ɪ/ in some words in South African English, South Africans are often stereotyped as pronouncing "woman" and "women" the same way, as "women" has the vowel [ə]. In reality, they are distinct in South African English. "woman" is /wʊmən/ and "women" is /wəmən/, so they are distinct and never confused.
The pin-pen merger is a conditional merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ŋ]. The merged vowel is usually closer to [ɪ] than to [ɛ]. The merger is widespread in Southern American English, and is also found in many speakers in the Midland region immediately north of the South, as well as in less densely populated inland areas of the Western United States, particularly in Bakersfield, California. It is also a characteristic of African American Vernacular English.
Although this merger was not complete in the South even in fairly recent times, there is very little variation throughout the Southern States in general, except that Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans are excluded from the merger. The area of consistent merger includes southern Virginia, most of the South Midland, and extends westward to include much of Texas.
The northern limit of the merged area shows a number of irregular curves. Central and southern Indiana is dominated by the merger, but there is very little evidence of it in Ohio, and northern Kentucky shows a solid area of distinction around Louisville.
In the west, there is sporadic representation of merged speakers in Washington, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. But the most striking concentration of merged speakers in the west is around Bakersfield, California, a pattern that may reflect the trajectory of migrant workers from the Ozarks westward.
The pin-pen merger is one of the most widely recognized features of Southern speech. A study of the written responses of Civil War veterans from Tennessee, together with data from the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States and the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle South Atlantic States, show that the merger was at a very low level through the first sixty years of the 19th century, but then rose steeply to 90% in the middle of the 20th century.
Outside the South, the majority of North American English speakers maintain a solid distinction in perception and production, though there are in almost every region of the United States—and even a few places in Canada—a certain number of speakers that perceive the pairs of words as close or pronounce them acoustically closely.
People that have the merger will often use terms like ink pen and stick pin to make a clear distinction between the two words that are otherwise homophonous.
The term happy tensing refers to the process in which final lax [ɪ] becomes tense [i] in words like happy. Happy tensing is absent from many varieties of British English and, traditionally at least, from Southern American English. Other realizations of the final vowel are also possible, such as [e] in Scottish English. The history of happy tensing is difficult to pin down; the fact that it is uniformly present in South African English, Australian English, and New Zealand English implies that it was present in southern British English already at the beginning of the 19th century. Yet it is not mentioned by descriptive phoneticians until the early 20th century, and even then at first only in American English.
In some dialects that preserve the distinction, things are more complicated than simply all words in the meat set having /ɪə/. In those accents, some (but not all) words in the meat set actually have a sound resembling /ɛɪ/ as in eight.
In Alexander (2001), a book about the traditional Sheffield dialect, the spelling "eigh" is used for the vowels of eat and meat but the spelling "eea" is used for the vowels of team and cream. Yorkshire accents generally have a weight-wait distinction, so the rhyme of meat with eight does not mean that meat and mate are homophonous in those accents.
The words team and cream, which have /ɪə/ in the traditional Yorkshire accents, have original long vowels, going back to Old English tēam and Old French creme respectively, while eat (< OE etan) and meat (< OE mete) have vowels that were originally short but lengthened by Middle English open syllable lengthening. This is the origin of the Yorkshire distinction.
In accents with the distinction, the vowels /ɪə/ and /ɛɪ/ are usually represented by the spellings ea and ei, as in team and receive, and the vowel /iː/ is usually represented by the spellings ee, ie, eCe and iCe as in feet, thief, complete, and suite.