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A Variation on Free Variation

When linguists speak of “free variation,” they have instances like the variable pronunciation of economics in mind, where the initial vowel can be pronounced in two ways––[ekəˈnämiks, ˌēk-]––without there being any change in the stylistic or normative purport, some speakers habitually preferring one or the other of the variants.

A slight departure from this pattern is the case where one and the same speaker pronounces one of the two variants on one occasion and the other on another occasion, even as close to each other as in two parts of the same sentence.

This kind of inconsistency was heard this morning from the American humorist Garrison Keillor on NPR during his daily segment “The Writer’s Almanac,” in which he pronounced the initial vowel of the title word al·ma·nac [ˈȯl-mə-ˌnak, ˈal-] in both of the ways attested in current American English. Anyone familiar with this speaker’s quirky personality (at least on the air) would likely not be surprised to be apprised of this speech datum, since it clearly is of a piece with his persona.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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