When Free Variation Isn’t So Free


[Ed note: I made two slight edits to an earlier version of this post for purposes of clarity.]

Like most people, my pronunciation is inconsistent. Take the word ‘thought,’ for example. I sometimes rhyme this with ‘lot,’ while other times I use a slightly rounded vowel to distinguish it. Such is an example of free variation. (The old ‘to-MAY-to to-MAH-to’ divide is another).

As you can guess, free variation refers to sounds of a language that can be pronounced a number of ways without changing the meaning of a word. To use another example, some speakers of General American English rhyme ‘bury’ with ‘berry,’ while others rhyme it with ‘furry.’ In either case, it refers to what you do with a shovel.

The term ‘free variation’ can be misleading, however. It suggests a degree of randomness, when such variation is often anything but. In his work on New York City accents in the 1960’s, linguist William Labov found that the presence of ‘r’ after vowels (i.e. in words like ‘car,’ ‘butter,’ and ‘for’) was not arbitrary. New Yorkers, as a whole, tend to pronounce ‘r’ more in these words the more formal the setting.

The formal-informal distinction seems like a common way in which such ‘free variation’ occurs. To use a personal example (which I may have used here before), my wife pronounces words like ‘lot’ and ‘top’ in two ways*: usually with an unrounded vowel ([ɑ], typical of American English), but occasionally with a rounded one ([ɒ], more typical of British English). The latter pronunciation, I have noticed, always seems to occur when she is talking to strangers (i.e. in a more ‘formal’ context).

The same is true of regionalisms in the speech of those who no longer live in their home region. Most transplanted Southerners that I know will vary between pronounce ‘time’ with the famous Southern monophthong (i.e. [ta:m]) and pronouncing the word with a diphthong (i.e. [taɪm]). When among Northerners, the former seems to come out most in informal contexts (a bar), while the latter in work settings.

Of course, formality is only one spectrum by which such variation can be observed. Can you think of any others?  And can anything be described as ‘free variation’ at all?

*Her speech is atypical of Greater Philadelphia.


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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17 Responses to When Free Variation Isn’t So Free

  1. ella says:

    You’re kind of basically talking about code-switching here. Not quite the same thing as free-variation.

    • trawicks says:

      In his Sociolinguistic Patterns, Labov defines code switching as changing from an entire system to another, while free variation describes changes within the features of the same system. Rhoticity in New York English and diphthongal /ai/ in Southern English might be thought of as outside intrusions, but within individual speakers, I would argue that they are acceptable allophones within each speaker’s idiolect.

      However, the point I’d like to make here is that much of what might be thought of as ‘free variation’ turns out not to be ‘free’ at all!

      • ella says:

        just want to apologise for accidentally leaving 3 comments when 1 would have been more than sufficient!

  2. ella says:

    Free variation would be more like if one individual pronounces the same word two or more different ways regardless of which stratum of dialect they are speaking. Many people do this with e.g. ‘either’ which may be /’i ðɚ/ or /’aʲ ðɚ/ in the same individual’s single dialect. I’ve seen some speculation that the choice of which pronunciation may be coloured by neighbouring vowels, but nothing conclusive.

    Modifying the dialect you speak in relation to the ‘formality’ of the situation, i.e. whether one is expected to speak more in the superstrate or prestige dialect or in their own substrate or less-prestige dialect (such as your example of southern US-ers around northerners) is code-switching.

  3. ella says:

    Sorry I accidentally left a sentence out there –

    *or if one is in an environment with many people who speak your ‘home’ dialect versus if one is in an environment dominated by people who speak a different dialect*

    should go before the brackets.

  4. Azuma says:

    To offer a example of how this works in reverse, when a former colleague (in a government agency in NYC) spoke to people in law enforcement, his normally slight New York accent became much more pronounced.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    Sometimes I pronounce ‘our’ like ‘are’ and other times I pronounce it to sound like ‘hour.’
    The former tends to be more informal (and is my original regional pronunciation), the latter I often use in more formal situations (as when reading to students).

  6. JB says:

    There are many variables, one of which is sentence stress. The previous example, “our” could have a 1) low-mid monophthong default pronunciation but 2) a diphthong when stressed.
    1) We got into our car and left.
    2) No, that’s not their car; that’s our car.

  7. AL says:

    For the word route, I can pronounce it like root or as rhyming with about (not Canadian raised about). I am not sure why I do this. Typically, I say “root” when referring to a specific, numbered road (e.g. MA Route 2, MD Route 28), and I say “rowt” when using the word generically. Is this free variation?

  8. Sooryan FM says:

    Cot/Caught merger is not a sociolinguistic phenomenon. I think you are partially merged at that’s all. Or maybe you’re ”merged in perception, but not in production”. Professor Labov would classify you as ”merger in transition”.

    As you know, there are many people in Atlantic Canada (St. John’s),and in the Mountain West, as well as in S.California (S. Diego, Palm Springs) with a consistent merger of LOT THOUGHT POL PAUL HONG KONG LONG SONG class to ([ɑ], without any rounding.

    If you have an unrounded vowel in HONG KONG, but a rounded vowel in LONG SONG, you cannot be fully low back merged.

    If you have an unrounded vowel in COLLAR, POL but a rounded vowel in CALLER, PAUL, you are not fully cot/caught merged.

    In Ottawa, roundedness of the DON/DAWN COT/CAUGHT LOT THOUGHT COLLAR/CALLER HONG KONG/WRONG SONG is a marker of informal speech. In formal speech unrounded vowels are used.

    In Denver CO or St. John’s NL, no person would confused BOLD with BALD in speech, because BALD is pronounced with an unrounded vowel ([ɑ]). In Western Canada both are [bɔld].

    In Hollywood, accent coaches do not recommend rounding of [ɑ], be it in words like CALLER/COLLAR, POL/PAUL, CALLIN’/COLLIN or WRONG SONG / HONG KONG. They teach a conservative Californian accent, not the Valley Girl twang.

    [ɑ] is ”all, call, song” sounds normal to most Americans (it’s the conservative pronunciation in the West and NCVShifted pronunciation in the Midwest), but rounded vowel in ”dollar, collar, Hong Kong” sounds off to most Americans. It sounds like (West)Canadian/ValleyGirlesque/Bostonian/Pittsburghese or British.).

    Jessica Lucas (form BC) uses [ɒ] in her Canadian tv interviews, but has consistent [ɑ] in her Hollywood appearances. So, the accent from British Colombia is acoustically/phonetically so different from the conservative Californian that she needs an accent coach to polish her vowels, although phonologically it’s the same accent.

    Canadians say: ”We speak exactly like people in California”.
    Nope, they do not. Most Californians don’t sound like Valley Girls.
    Oxford Canadian English uses [ɒ] for the Don/Dawn/Pol/Paul/Collar/Caller vowel.
    MW’s Learner’s Dictionary uses [ɑ] for the Don/Dawn/Pol/Paul/Collar/Caller vowel.

    • trawicks says:

      I’d agree with you that the cot-caught merger may be one of the few situations where variation can be genuinely free of sociolinguistic constraints. Here in Seattle, locals seem to switch between [ɑ] and [ɒ] for no appreciable reason.

      That being said, I might argue that for people with a weak cot-caught split like myself, there are some outside factors that come into play. I find I tend to merge ‘cot’ and ‘caught’ more frequently with younger interlocutors. Perhaps this is because, on some subconscious level, the merger seems to be a ‘younger’ speech trait?

    • Dw says:

      Not that I disbelieve you, but how many people did you consult before venturing to speak on behalf of “most Americans”?

      And doesn’t “bold” have the GOAT vowel for many speakers?

  9. Sooryan FM says:

    Lady Gaga’s had a Hollywood-based accent coach. That’s why she sounds more standard than K. Perry. You can hear traces of the Californian Vowel Shift in Katy’s accent, but Lady Gaga’s accent is a perfect example of a (learned) conservative Western/Californian accent. Another similar example: Brooke Shields.

    Native speakers of ”conservative Californian” are difficult to find these days, but Alison Lohman (of White Oleander and Drag me to Hell) from Palm Springs is one of them. SF and LA accents are getting more and more regional-sounding. For a more neutral Western accent in California, you need to go to San Diego, where you can hear a typical conservative Western accent devoid of roundings of unrounded vowels or chain shifts, it resembles the accent ”used” in the MW’s Learner’s Dictionary:

  10. Mark Paris says:

    Once while traveling in Colorado, I had occasion to buy some ice. When I asked for it in using my normal pronunciation (I’m from Georgia), the grocery store employee didn’t understand. I had to translate it into “Yankee” for her. We both had a little laugh about it.

  11. Petex says:

    The variation is free when it’s not conditioned by the phonologial context and bears no semantic signifcance. The concept doesn’t fail because people sometimes speak more carefully than others!

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