The Pin-Pen Merger

19th Century Census

Illinois Census, ca. 1850

I used for a few months, before it got a bit too expensive. One of the main family branches that I researched were (was?) the Kendricks, a family in Kentucky that has been in that state for several generations.

An interesting thing I found was that in many of the older census records “Kendrick” would often be mispelled as Kindrick. This wasn’t an isolated incident, but in fact was an error committed by multiple, unrelated census takers. This would be a puzzling mystery unless you were to remember that Kentucky, like other southern states, features the Pin-Pen Merger.

This is another academic term for something you’ll recognize the second you hear it. In this merger, words that end in -en or -en merge with the vowel in words like pin or Tim. So, for example, my own name, Ben, sounds more like “bin,” and hem sounds a bit like “him.”

Here’s an example, from famed Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy, which you can find at :26 of this video, when he cracks a joke about the word “menu:”

But this is taken to further extremes in some speakers. Because of the Southern Vowel Shift, whereby front vowels are raised, “Ben” can actually sound like “bee-uhn” (IPA biən). That’s quite a leap from a single sound to make!

Regardless of the specific phonetics, some form of this merger is widespread throughout the American South.  Although, like most “Southern” dialect features, it creeps northward. Very far northward, if Rick Aschmann’s American Dialects Map is to be believed. Out in the mountain states, Aschmann finds a pin-pen merged speaker in Conrad, Montana, a mere 60 miles from the Canadian border!

Since the majority of pin-pen merged speakers live in traditional borders of the Southern States, however, I tend to think of it as a feature of that region.  When somebody calls me “bin,” I ask them where they’re from in the South.

Now, when I’ve looked at possible sources for dialect features on this blog, I’ve usually looked for influences from dialects in the British Isles. And in this case, I don’t think there is much of a mystery: the merger is a feature of some Western Irish accents to this day. Like a few other Southern dialect features, I’m guessing the feature came over with the Scots-Irish from Ulster*.

What is more perplexing about the Pin-Pen Merger is that, regardless of where its origins lie, it only recently spread so far and wide.  As per linguist Vivian R. Brown in her paper, Evolution of the Merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ Before Nasals in Tennessee:

Southern States English has not always had the completed merger; data from the LInguistic Atlas of the Gulf States suggest that it has become predominant in the South only in this century. According to Bailey and Maynor (1989, 13), it began “in the last part of the nineteenth century and worked its way to completion during the last half century.”

As with many features of American Southern English, the question is not where it came from but why it is so widespread.  It’s the linguistic equivalent of lighting a match in a field full of dead grass, and watching a tiny flame grow into a huge brush fire.

So why did such a strange accent feature spread so far so rapidly?

*In his unwieldily-titled paper, On the trail of “intolerable Scoto-Hibernic jargon: Ulster English, Irish English and dialect hygeine in William Carleton’s ‘Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry’ (First Series, 1830), linguist Kevin McCafferty questions this assumption by noting that the pin-pen merger only appears to be in modern dialects of Southern Irish English, and not in the North. But since this is such a recessive feature in Irish English regardless, my guess is that it was once much more widespread throughout the island, and now we can only find traces of it here and there.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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34 Responses to The Pin-Pen Merger

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    I think Rick Aschmann was right to include much of the Midland in the Pin-Pen merging area. My mother, my brother and I all grew up the Midland and we all have this merger. We don’t sound Southern though (when I’ve gone to the South they ask, “Where are you from?”). I think there’s more to sounding Southern than just this. Nice post. I’ve been interested in this merger for a while, because it’s one of the few features in my speech that might allow someone to identify me as being from somewhere.

  2. 'enry 'iggins says:

    I don’t know about Montana and Wyoming though, because I’m not from that area. Maybe that region was settled by many Southerners.

    • trawicks says:

      I believe a lot of the mountainous areas out west had quite a few Southerners. My one slight caveat about Brown’s quote above, in fact, is that if the merger is found in as many places out west as it is, and given that this area was largely settled in the second have of the 19th C, wouldn’t this suggest the merger was more common amongst southerners by then?

  3. dw says:

    So why did such a strange accent feature spread so far so rapidly?

    Not sure why it is any “strange”r than, say, the Mary-marry-merry merger which also seems to have spread at around the same time. (In fact, speaking as someone who has neither, the Mary-marry-merry merger seems considerably stranger to me )

    As for why it spread — maybe population migration out of the South?

    • 'enry 'iggins says:

      “In fact, speaking as someone who has neither, the Mary-marry-merry merger seems considerably stranger to me.”

      To an American, it would probably sound less strange, because it is much more widespread. Maybe you are American though. I don’t know.

      • dw says:

        No: I’m not American by origin (although I am now by citizenship).

        • 'enry 'iggins says:

          I didn’t think so. You won’t find very many Americans (or Canadians) with the Mary-marry-merry distinction these days.

    • trawicks says:

      I’m with ‘enry in that, as an American, MARRY-MERRY-MARY seems less peculiar to me. Although obviously words like “peculiar” and “strange” are quite subjective! (Also, M-M-M seems like only one of many mergers and shifts that occur before ‘r’).

      • dw says:

        as an American, MARRY-MERRY-MARY seems less peculiar to me

        I’m sure. I just found the question: “why did such a strange accent feature spread so far so rapidly?” rather smug and patronizing.

        (Also, M-M-M seems like only one of many mergers and shifts that occur before ‘r’)

        Yes: there’s also nearer-mirror and hurry-furry. M-M-M is the only three-way one, though. And, of course, they’re all “strange” to me, because I don’t have them!

  4. ella says:

    the pin-pen merger is also a notorious feature of NZ English – in one episode of Flight of the Conchords there’s a lovely scene where 2 New Zealander characters are worried about a missing friend who they believe to be dead are trying to explain the situation to their New Yorker friend “He’s dead, Mike” “He did what?” “No, he’s dead, he’s dead!” “I don’t get it, what did he do?” and so on. (You can rest easy that the character eventually turned up safe and sound)

    • dw says:

      Are you sure about this?

      I have read that New Zealanders do distinguish pin from pen: however the New Zealand pronunciation of “pen” sounds like most other accents’ pronouncation of “pin”.

      The New Zealand pronunciation of “pin”, on the other hand, sounds more like the second syllable of “open”, but stressed.

    • trawicks says:

      That bit is one of my favorite pieces of accent humor! “I know, but what did he maybe do?”

      As dw suggests, NZ actually doesn’t have this merger. The vowel in words like “dress” and “pen” (and, of course, “dead”) is pronounced higher in the mouth than in most other accents of English. Meanwhile, the “i” in “pin” is pronounced further back in the mouth. To outsiders this can make “pin” sound like “pun” or “pen.”

    • Ellen K. says:

      Ella, if an accent does pronounce dead and did alike, that’s not the pin/pen merger, but a different merger. The pin/pen merger is specifically in front of nasals. Merging the two vowels in all contexts is (according to Wikipedia) the bit-bet merger, which (again, according to Wikipedia) some speakers in Newfoundland have.

      • 'enry 'iggins says:

        But they don’t pronounce dead and did alike in New Zealand. That’s what trawicks and dw were saying. It’s just that their phonetic realization of dead sounds like the phonetic realization of did in most other accents. To prevent a merger from happening, the vowel in did moves towards the vowel at the beginning of about. Typical chain shift. I think it’s a push chain in this case. I’m not a linguist though.

        • Ellen K. says:

          ‘enry ‘iggins, see those first four letters of my reply? That indicates who I was replying to. I was not replying to DW, nor to Trawicks. Nor did I see a need to repeat what they’d already written. So your reply to me is irrelevant to what I said. Notice the only geographical location I mentioned is nearly 10,000 miles away from New Zealand.

        • 'enry 'iggins says:

          No, I don’t see them. Help me!

    • ella says:

      Darn it, I am shamed! I should have known this, and in fact did realise the flaw in my reasoning early on, I was too eager to repeat an amusing anecdote. Won’t be the first time that trait has made me look a bit stupid :p

  5. redpenner says:

    So much the same that people from that region commonly say “ink pen” instead of just “pen”. It’s a sure sign of a southerner.

    • trawicks says:

      I can attest that it’s pretty intense. I have a friend from Houston who has stated that she literally cannot tell the difference between the vowel in the two words!

    • 'enry 'iggins says:

      I’ve never heard “ink pen” or “stick pen” or anything like that from anyone where I’m from. I guess we just expect people to know what we mean from the context. I don’t remember anyone ever having trouble with that, surprisingly. I don’t remember me ever having trouble either. I only know about “ink pen” and “stick pen” from reading about them.

      • 'enry 'iggins says:

        See, I just screwed up my spelling because of this damned merger 🙂 It should be “stick pin”. I do make spelling mistakes occasionally because of this merger. But I was talking about me understanding the speech of others in my hometown (and them understanding my speech). That hasn’t been much of a problem surprisingly.

        • Salamander says:

          I was baffled by the “ink pen” thing when I lived in the South. I asked a friend (who was from Missouri, by the way) once why she always called a pen an “ink pen.” She looked surprised and said “To tell it apart from a pig pen, of course!”

          My grandma lived in Kentucky, and I spent several years of my life thinking my uncle’s name actually was “Bin.”

  6. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m a librarian (born and raised in CA) and I was helping someone with Genealogical research who had the same issue (can’t remember the name, but there were spellings with e and with i) – the family was from Ohio. Neither the patron nor I thought twice about it.

  7. I grew up in Olympia, Washington, and I have to say that in the 1970s we also had a “pin/pen” merger phenomenon going on; I believe that acoustically we were more toward “pen.”

    I remember a substitute teacher complaining that people thought his wife’s name was “Windy” instead of “Wendy.”

    Also, when I was in first grade, I was annoyed by the way my teacher taught me how to spell “milk.” I remember spelling it just as we said it, “m-e-l-k,” and the teacher corrected me, saying “no, listen…” and then (very artificially) pronouncing “milk” (with the “pin” vowel). I remember thinking, ok obviously she wants me to spell it with an /i/, but NOBODY says it that way.

    That’s back when we all pronounced “vanilla” with the “pen” vowel as well.

    I blogged about Melk-gate back in 2007.

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting. I don’t know a whole lot about Pacific Northwestern English (ironic, since I’m moving to that region in a few months!) Are you saying that the “pen” vowel moves up closer to “pin,” or that “pin” moves toward “pen?”

      • That was my perception as a kid; the situation is different now. People still say [melk] but I haven’t heard [vanella] in a long time. I feel like the pen/pin situation has cleared up, but I’m not reliable on that one. I pronounce “roof” and “root” with the same vowel as “book,” but my high school students do not share that trait (remember there’s been massive migration to this area over the last 20 years from all parts of the USA).

        We also used to have a very clear pop/soda DISTINCTION that is being lost, as “pop” is increasingly perceived as uneducated.

        If you’re coming to Seattle and dealing with teenagers especially, you’ll hear a lot of creaky voice.

        Anyway there are plenty of things going on lexically and phonologically in the Pacific Northwest. If someone tries to tell you we speak some kind of homogeneous non-California “Western American” English, don’t believe them; they don’t know what to listen for.

        • m.m. says:

          “If someone tries to tell you we speak some kind of homogeneous non-California “Western American” English, don’t believe them; they don’t know what to listen for.”


          I thought a lowered vowel in “vanilla”, along with “milk” was fairly common, especially in western speech or other front vowel lowering accents. In my case, I perceive an [ɪ] as more odd sounding than something approaching [ɛ].

        • Sam Huddy says:

          I’m from Pasadena where the “melk” shift is very common, and has begun to apply to other formations as well. But nowhere else in Southern California is this done. We have a lot of weird phonological baggage.

  8. Clarence says:

    Even among Southerners growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, there was the pin-pen confusion. We met it by using qualifying words: Ink Pen vs. Straight Pin vs. Safety Pin vs. Bobby Pin. “Hand me that ink pen” makes it crystal clear.
    I even had a second cousin, twice (forcibly) removed who was an alumnus of State Penn–once for bad checks, another time for robbing a drugstore. I hear Penn State is about to officially change their moniker to State Penn due to recent developments up there.

    Of course we had many kinds of Irons to keep straight, too:
    Flat Iron for ironing clothes; steam iron, cast iron; branding iron; curling iron; andiron, angle iron, wrought iron, soldering iron, Five iron, and of course Shootin’ Iron.

    • David says:

      “I hear Penn State is about to officially change their moniker to State Penn due to recent developments up there.”


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  12. Ken Sears says:

    It’s not only words that END with -en, but it shows up inside words, too–I hear “gineral”, for instance. There is a video on YouTube where a preacher pronounces an embarrassing spoonerism about a biblical figure wanting to “pinch his tits”, what the preacher meant to say being “pitch his tents”. What’s fascinating about this is, if the guy had not been predisposed to say “tints” for “tents” (it is abundantly clear from the rest of the clip that he is an extreme case of the “eh-distorter”, uniformly pronouncing “frind, thin, tint” for “friend, then, tent”; in fact, the second word in the clip is an ear-assaulting “thin” for “then”)–if he had not had this predisposition, the spoonerism would NOT have come out with TWO I-sounds. It would have come out “petch his tints”. This “pinning of pens” assaults and grates on my senses, I confess, all the more so as it appears to be spreading virulently through American speech, no longer confined to a few southern backwaters. Bizzarely it seems to be de rigueur among the ladies of Fox News–as if they’ve signed a contract in blood to “pin” all their “pens”. It’s horrifying. They are entrenching and “standardizing” this abomination in the American ear, and nobody at Fox seems to notice or care. Sounds are wonderful things, and “eh” is a beautiful specimen, and it is part of the language’s “genius” that “pen” and “pin” are TWO DIFFERENT PHONEMES. But, apparently, not for long…in America, at least. There are other vowels being subtly nudged out of existence in American English as well, but–enough for this comment.