The merger of /w/ and /e/ before nasals (causing homophony in word pairs like pen ~ pin
or chem ~ Kim) is one of the most popularly commented on features of Southern US dialects
(Bailey 1997, Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 1998, Berrey 1940, Thomas 2001). yet few studies
exist of either its range or its phonetic characteristics. Brown (1991) is the most extensive
treatment, but this is an historical account.
Typically, the account of the pin/pen merger is as in Thomas (2001): /e/, being generally
higher in the South, is more susceptible to interference from the nasal formant trough, which
causes it to raise, or be interpreted as raised, to /w/ in pre-nasal contexts. This has not been tested
acoustically, however (although Beddor (1986) supports this idea using data from languages with
phonemically nasal vowels). Also, although /æ/ has separately been shown to raise in pre-nasal
contexts (Labov 1994), it has not yet been considered within the “classical” pin/pen merger.
Southern Illinois, the site for my research, is, like the merger, both linguistically debatable
and under studied. It has been historically a cast-off of dialectologists, considered variously as
part of the South Midland (Frazer 1996), North Midland (Davis & Houck 1995), or as part of the
Ozark Foothills/Western Appalachians (Dickson 2000). None of these accounts, however,
adequately sample Southern Illinois speech; instead, they rely on assumptions and folk ideals
concerning the region. This region is an especially important place to consider because it is both
as far north as this “southern” feature should reach, and as such the speakers of this region have
real exposure to both merging and non-merging varieties.
This work is a move toward filling in these gaps in our understanding. Thirty speakers
were sampled from three counties across the 16 counties constituting Southern Illinois. Three
tokens of /w/, /e/, and /æ/ in pre-alveolar and pre-labial environments, in two different reading
tasks, were collected for each speaker in both pre-nasal and pre-oral stop contexts (~2160 tokens
total). F1 and F2 values were measured at the vowel steady-state midpoints (or at target points
What the data show is a dynamic pattern, with predictability of the merger growing
increasingly erratic as the age of the speakers decreases. For example, in the older speakers,
attention paid to speech does not seem to affect degree of merger for either sex, while in younger
speakers women tend to show less merger in situations requiring more speech attention. Also, for
the older speakers, only /w/ and /e/ merge, while in the younger speakers, /e/ will merge with
either /w/ or /æ/. Finally, while it is generally thought that /e/ raises to meet /w/, my data show /w/
lowering as well as /e/ raising, something not yet mentioned in the literature. Whether these
processes are a case of age-grading or language change cannot yet be known. However, these
results show us that the pen/pin merger in Southern Illinois should be given careful consideration
as a site of language variation.
Bailey, G. 1997. “When Did Southern English Begin?”. in E.W. Schneider (ed.). Englishes
Around the World, Vol. 1: General Studies, British Isles, North America. Studies in
Honor of Manfred Görlach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 255-275.
Beddor, P.S., R.A. Krakow, & L.M. Goldstein. 1986. “Perceptual Constraints and Phonological
Change: A Study of Nasal Vowel Height”. Phonology Yearbook. 3. 197-217.
Berrey, L.V. 1940. “Southern Mountain Dialect”. American Speech. 15.1. 45-54.
Brown, V.R. 1991. “Evolution of the Merger of /w/ and /e/ Before Nasals in Tennessee”.
American Speech. 66.3. 303-315.
Davis, L.M. & C.L. Houck. 1995. “What Determines a Dialect Area? Evidence from The
Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest”. American Speech. 70.4. 371-386.
Dickson, A.J. 2000. The View from Little Egypt: a look into the linguistic identity of southern
Illinoisans through their perceptions of US English. Unpublished MA Thesis. Southern
Illinois University - Carbondale.
Frazer, T. 1996. “The Dialects of the Middle West”. in E.W. Schneider (ed.). FOCUS ON THE
USA. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 81-102.
Labov, W. 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change, Vol. 1: Internal Factors. Oxford: Blackwell
Thomas, E. R. 2001. An Acoustic Analysis of Vowel Variation in New World English.
Publication of the American Dialect Society. 85. Durham: Duke UP.
Wolfram, W. & N. Schilling-Estes. 1998. American English. Oxford: Blackwell.