I used Ancestry.com 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.