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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.
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 ( and respectively), 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 allophones, however, free variation is exceedingly common and, along with differing intonation patterns, variation in allophony is the most important single feature in the characterization of regional accents.
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.
- The rhotic consonant /r/ is in a free variation between the alveolar approximant, retroflex approximant, alveolar flap and alveolar trill, although all of these save for the first one are considered dialectal and rare.
- Glottalization of voiceless stops in word-final position: for example, the word stop may be pronounced with a plain unaspirated [p], [st?p], or with a glottalized [p?], [st?p?], also called a glottal stop or glottal plosive.
- The word economics may be pronounced with or in the first syllable; although individual speakers may prefer one or the other and one may be more common in some dialects than others, both forms are encountered within a single dialect and sometimes even within a single idiolect.
- In the words either and neither, "ei" can be pronounced as either or , even by the same speaker.
- Loanwords, especially of French and Latin origin, can often have multiple different pronunciations, such as route, which can be pronounced as either (a more anglicized pronunciation) or (a pronunciation more akin to French).
- The word data can be pronounced as either or .
- Proper names, especially geographic state names, can have multiple different pronunciations, such as Colorado, which can be pronounced as either and
- Years from 2010 onwards can be expressed in English as either, e.g., two thousand ten or twenty ten.