Free variation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In linguistics, free variation is the phenomenon of two (or more) sounds or forms appearing in the same environment without a change in meaning and without being considered incorrect by native speakers.[1][2]

Sociolinguists argue that describing such variation as "free" is very often a misnomer, since variation between linguistic forms is usually constrained probabilistically by a range of systematic social and linguistic factors, not unconstrained as the term "free variation" suggests.[3] The term remains in use in studies focused primarily on language as systems (e.g. phonology, morphology, syntax), however, since "[t]he fact that variation is 'free' does not imply that it is totally unpredictable, but only that no grammatical principles govern the distribution of variants."[4]


When phonemes are in free variation, speakers are sometimes strongly aware of the fact (especially if such variation is noticeable only across a dialectal or sociolectal divide), and will note, for example, that tomato is pronounced differently in British and American English (/təˈmɑːt/ and /təˈmt/ respectively),[5] or that either has two pronunciations that are distributed fairly randomly. However, only a very small proportion of English words show such variations. In the case of different realizations of the same phoneme, however, free variation is exceedingly common and, along with differing intonation patterns, variation in realization is the most important single feature in the characterization of regional accents.[1]

English's deep orthography and the language's wide variety of accents often cause confusion, even for native speakers, on how written words should be pronounced. That allows for a significant degree of free variation to occur in English.[6]

English examples[edit]



Pronunciation of many English words may vary depending on the dialect and the speaker. Although individual speakers may prefer one or the other pronunciation and one may be more common in some dialects than others, many forms can often be encountered within a single dialect and sometimes even within a single idiolect.

  • In some words, some speakers might use a different vowel than the others. This includes words like:
  • Pronouncing a word with a different consonant or using a completely different pronunciation is also sometimes found in English. This can be found in words like:
    • schedule, which may be pronounced either with the /sk/ consonant cluster or the /ʃ/ sound. The former is more common in American English, the latter in British English; with /sk/ and /ʃ/ phonemically distinct in both varieties (e.g. scout/shout, skin/shin), identical spelling obscures the fact that different phonological structures underlie the phonetic contrast;
    • some loanwords like guillotine which can be pronounced with either /l/ or /j/.


  • Years from 2010 onwards can be expressed in English as either, e.g., two thousand ten or twenty ten.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Clark, John Ellery; Yallop, Colin; Fletcher, Janet (2007). Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 110, 116–18. ISBN 978-1-4051-3083-7.
  2. ^ SIL International. (2003). Glossary of Linguistic Terms. [1]. Retrieved 2022-09-13.
  3. ^ Meyerhoff, Miriam (2011). Introducing Sociolinguistics (2 ed.). Routledge. p. 12. ISBN 9781135284435.
  4. ^ Kager, René (2004). Optimality Theory. Cambridge University Press. p. 404.
  5. ^ a b "Free Variation in Phonetics: You Say 'Tomato,' I Say 'Tomahto'". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2017-08-06.
  6. ^ Ben (2011-10-29). "When Free Variation Isn't So Free". Dialect Blog. Retrieved 2017-08-07.
  7. ^ "What Is Free Variation? (with picture)". wiseGEEK. Retrieved 2017-08-06.