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My wife Karen and I just spent a long weekend with her family in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. As I've mentioned before, there are some noteworthy (though not necessarily unique) properties of the local Louisville accent. One of these is a property shared among many Southern dialects of American English in some form or another: the lack of a (clear) distinction between [ɪ] and [ɛ] before [n] (and sometimes other nasal consonants as well), such that e.g. pin and pen are (nearly) homophonous. To my ear, the result of this merger for natives of Louisville sounds closer to the [ɪ] vowel that I myself produce in pin, but I have not done any serious analysis to confirm or disconfirm this impression.

Another merger that is common to pretty much all English speakers is the reduction of many vowel distinctions to [ə] (schwa) in unstressed syllables. Thus, atom is [ˈæɾəm] while atomic is [əˈtʰɑːmək], with the vowels changing depending on which vowel is stressed and which vowel is unstressed. Relatedly, carafe and giraffe only differ in the initial consonant; the former is [kəˈɹæf] and the latter is [ʤəˈɹæf], both with [ə] in the initial unstressed syllable even though these vowels are spelled differently. (But note that unlike atom/atomic, the unstressed vowels of carafe and giraffe never really have an opportunity to be stressed; they are virtually always pronounced as [ə] and thus the difference in spelling is, practically speaking, entirely arbitrary.)

The difference between [ɪ] and [ə] is pretty subtle, and the result of unstressed vowel reduction for some English speakers in some contexts is reported to be [ɪ] rather than [ə]. For example, on p. 97 of A Course in Phonetics (4th ed., 2001), Peter Ladefoged wrote: "I have transcribed the first vowel in 'explain' as [ɪ] because that is the form I use. But other dialects may have [ə] or some other quality."

This potential confound between [ɪ] and [ə] presents a special problem for natives of Louisville. Suppose there's a word with an unstressed vowel followed by [n], like [ˈbɹɛk__nˌɹɪʤ]. How should this word be spelled? The unstressed vowel sounds (kinda like) [ɪ], so the options are i or e, given the lack of a distinction between these two vowels before n in Louisville. So, the word can be either Breckinridge or Breckenridge. And, in fact, we find exactly this variation: the road that we take to get to the airport when we leave Louisville is Breckenridge Lane, except when it's Breckinridge Lane. I had an opportunity on this visit to take a couple of photographs highlighting this: the one on the left is a street sign near 900 Breckenridge Lane and the one on the right is a sign for a business located at 950 Breckinridge Lane, just a block away.

(There's also a Breckinridge Street in another part of Louisville, but this one appears to be consistently spelled with an i.)


  1. Dan T. said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    But which spelling is actually official for that street? Presumably one could go to the city or county government records building and look up the official plat maps.

  2. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    I grew up on Tresslar Avenue in a small Indiana town. At one point, the street was repaved, and the street sign at one end was replaced. Now the older street sign at the north end says "Tresslar," but a block south is a newer sign that reads "Tressler."

  3. Timothy Martin said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    I'm confused – wouldn't spelling conventions, and not phonetics, determine how to spell the word? To my ear I pronounce the relevant vowel in Breckenridge as [ɪ], but I acknowledge that the spelling with "e" looks more correct, whereas "Breckinridge" looks like a mistake someone might make because of the way the word is pronounced (just as one might write "acceptible" when they meant "acceptable").

    I also don't understand why you switched from talking about [ɪ] and [ɛ] to talking about [ɪ] and [ə]. I acknowledge that the difference between the former two is rather subtle, but between the latter? Are there actually people who say /əkspleɪn/, as opposed to /ɪkspleɪn/ or /ɛkspleɪn/? I would think that if I said /əkspleɪn/ to someone they wouldn't know what word I was saying.

    Any clarification on these points would be much appreciated. Sorry if I'm just not getting the point.

  4. Chris said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    Here's a related story about the town of Breckenridge, Colorado:

  5. Charles Wells said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    I am a 70 year old native of Atlanta. I say [kəˈɹæf] for carafe but [ʤʊˈɹæf] or for giraffe. I can't find a minimal pair, but I come close with [sɛ'nɪt] for Senate and [paɪ'lət] for pilot (and Pilate).

  6. Ron said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    I thought the most distinctive use of the schwa in Louisville was that the name of the city has two of them. :)

  7. Debbie said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    More Indiana-ana: A friend from Madison, Indiana, has always been the only person I know to call me "Dibbie."

  8. JLR said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    Well, I assume the street is named after Confederate general and Kentucky native John C. Breckinridge (or some other member of his family). Despite my overwhelming urge to spell it with an "e", I'm going to have to go with "i". The spelling with an "e" does seem to be more natural. I'm not sure why it seems more natural, I can't think of much supporting evidence off the top of my head.

  9. Wordnut said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    And is it pronounced Louisville or Louisvul?

  10. Daniel said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    @Wordnut: It's pronounced Lewavul.

  11. Faldone said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    FWIW Mapquest takes you nicely to 900 Breckenridge Ln. but when given 925 Breckinridge Ln. sends you to 925 Breckinridge St., some 7 miles away. Google maps has it alternately labeled Breckenridge and Breckinridge for almost its entire length, finally settling on Breckenridge at its southern end.

  12. Eric Baković said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    @Faldone: the links I provided in the paragraph above the pictures in my post are to the relevant Google Maps.

    @Wordnut et al: the first link in my post contains discussion of the native pronunciation of Louisville.

  13. Faldone said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Boy, howdy. Ya'd think I'd learn to check out the links.

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    It leads me to wonder if there are any other languages that love the schwa so, or if there is any other vowel so consistently substituted in unstressed syllables in any other language.

  15. John Cowan said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    Wordnut: the proper way to ask that question is: "How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky: Louisville or Louie-ville?" I once nailed a native Kentuckian with this question!

    Charles Wells: your surname-sharer John C. Wells provides these minimal and near-minimal pairs for diagnosing the Weak Vowel Murger (er, Merger): Lenin-Lennon, rabbit-abbot, pig it-bigot, sell it-zealot, massive-mass of, and in their weak forms, it-at and him/'em.

    JLR: You're almost certainly right about this specific Breckinridge, but most people named "Bracken Ridge" (yup, that's the etymology, from a place in Scotland) do spell it Breckenridge nowadays. The variability is not particularly tied to the American South, however, so we may not need a better explanation than the one that the author Henry Fielding gave to his distant relative the Earl of Denbigh (whose family name was spelled "Feilding"):

    "I know not, my Lord, save perhaps that my branch of the family was the first to learn how to spell."

  16. Dan T. said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    Is it Lennon or Lenin who read a book on Marx in the Don McLean song "American Pie"?

  17. Christian DiCanio said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    Speaking of dialectal mergers and neutralizations, in certain Northern cities dialects (like my hometown of Buffalo), you observe the following allophones:

    /æ/ > [ɛə] / _C[voiced] (or anywhere where you expect a longer vowel, including before voiceless fricatives).

    This is background, but observe that before liquids you get vowel lowering in many languages (generally speaking). The result of this is a merger between /æ/ and /eɪ/ before /l/. Now, most people already merge these non-high front vowels before /r/. However, the fact that you get this diphthongal allophone perhaps is the cause for another type of neutralization, before /l/.

    The following words are identical in my dialect:
    "kale" and my (now alma mater) "Cal"
    "sail" and "Sal"
    "pail" and "pal"
    "shale" and "shall"

    However, once you get suffixation that adds a syllable to a root with a neutralized vowel, the "original" vowel returns, e.g.

    rail [ɹɛəl] but railing [ɹeɪlɪŋ], sail [sɛəl] but sailing [seɪlɪŋ] or sailor [seɪlɹ̩]

    However, it is [sɛəld], as in "I sailed the ocean blue."

  18. HeyTeach said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    Lenin, I have always thought. Hence, the comic irony.

  19. John Laviolette said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

    Dan T: Although MacLean, like many Americans, probably pronounces both Lennon and Lenin with a schwa in the final syllable, the context of the song makes it clear he's talking about Lennon. The song's about how much MacLean dislikes the way music has changed since the death of Buddy Holly, and in particular focuses on people who claimed to be influenced by Holly (the Beatles, the Byrds, the Stones.) Vladimir Lenin died a considerable time before Holly did, so it's unlikely that MacLean's singing about him. To make this relevant to the real topic, I think context is going to affect spelling choices for sounds that otherwise sound the same in a dialect. "Lennon" and "Lenin" usually occur in different contexts, so people usually get the right spelling. People in Kentucky presumably have learned some state history in high school and thus know which letter to use for the name "Breckenridge" — usually. Can we hypothesize that the anomalous sign was possibly made by a Kentucky immigrant?

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    As a boy in the early-mid '70's I attended Faulk Elementary School, which was located on Foulk Road. The respective namesakes of school and road apparently were from different branches of the same local family, and the names were pronounced identically (same vowel as "caulk" which I think in my dialect is very subtly different from that in "balk"). Sometime around 1980, various factors incuding declining enrollment associated with the "Baby Bust" led to the school being shut down and the property sold off to developers, who put up an office park. Googling advises me that the office park is rather boringly named "Foulkstone Plaza," conforming to the road and ending the discrepency, although there are a few typo "Faulkstone" references out there.

  21. JLR said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    Re: Lenin vs. Lennon. I'm pretty sure it's a deliberate pun.

  22. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    To me, Breckinridge immediately suggests Myra, and hence -in- rather than -en-; this may well provide a clue to my age …

    It never occurred to me that Don Maclean might be singing about Lennon rather than Lenin; as a lifelong non-fan of Lennon, I like the idea a lot. Many thanks …

  23. Andrew said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    Dan T: It's not impossible that different documents in the City records spell it differently.

    I have known streets called 'White House' at one end andf 'Whitehouse' at the other, and 'Church Hill' at one end and 'Churchill' at the other. Perhaps the most striking example, though, is the River Lee (or Lea) in East London, which actually appears on maps as 'River Lea or Lee', since people still cannot agree on the spelling.

  24. Rick S said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    When I first moved from central New York to central Virginia, I was still in high school. I was stumped early on when one of my classmates asked to borrow my pin. Thinking first of a common pin, I couldn't imagine why she would assume I carried such a thing to school with me. "No, no," she explained, "I mean your ink pin!"

    It turns out that around here, when speaking of the writing instrument, the disambiguating modifier "ink" is used more often than not, so much so that many people seem to think "ink pen" is its only proper name.

  25. Dan T. said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    Rick S.: I suppose that's one of the ways a language changes and evolves… first a sound change merges words ambiguously (pin and pen), and then people disambiguate by adding other words ("ink pen"), and sometimes these new phrases turn into words in their own right ("inkpen") which can then undergo further evolution until their original components are obscured (maybe in 300 years it'll become "inpun" or something, and be a perfectly normal future-English word for the writing implement, if people in that era still use handwriting implements at all).

  26. Kenny Easwaran said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    Re Andrew:

    I didn't know of that river when I was doing the New York Times crossword the other day, but it definitely expected "Lea" to be entered and not "Lee". I guess they could have avoided the ambiguity (which of course was much wider for people like me who didn't know of the river at all – I tried to put "Cam" in at first which didn't work) by cluing it as a meadow, as they usually do for that string of three letters.

  27. kenny v said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    Interesting. In San Antonio, we have various things named after a city benefactor named Brackenridge, and it is not spelled otherwise in my experience.

  28. K. said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    I confounded my (Yankee) introductory linguistics professor by offering "thin" and "then" as a minimal pair for interdental fricatives.

  29. Amy Stoller said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    Nathan Myers said:
    "It leads me to wonder if there are any other languages that love the schwa so, or if there is any other vowel so consistently substituted in unstressed syllables in any other language."

    I don't know about accents of other languages, but many types of English use the schwa where I, as a native New Yorker, wouldn't. Various accents of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa spring to mind.

  30. Kevin Iga said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    Hebrew uses the schwa often (in fact that's the etymology of the word "schwa"). In some cases, the schwa substitutes for a missing vowel in a consonant cluster.

  31. marie-lucie said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    I confounded my (Yankee) introductory linguistics professor by offering "thin" and "then" as a minimal pair for interdental fricatives.

    I knew a professor from Texas who confounded his (Canadian) introductory linguistics class for exactly the same reason.

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    Thus, atom is [ˈæɾəm] while atomic is [əˈtʰɑːmək], with the vowels changing depending on which vowel is stressed and which vowel is unstressed. Relatedly, carafe and giraffe only differ in the initial consonant; the former is [kəˈɹæf] and the latter is [ʤəˈɹæf], both with [ə] in the initial unstressed syllable even though these vowels are spelled differently.

    Apologies for my lack of phonetic symbology, but this isn't true for me (middle class London, UK accent). "Carafe" is as you say, but the first syllable in "giraffe" is more or less a short "i" and the second rhymes with "scarf".

  33. Greg Morrow said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    Accordingly to Wikipedia, however, Louisville is actually an anomalous peninsula in the distribution of pin-pen merger; it retains the distinction, even though the rest of Kentucky and parts of nearby southern Indiana possess the merger. (I'm from Elizabethtown, about an hour south of Louisville, and I have near complete pin-pen merger; most of my cousins are from Louisville and have limited-to-no merger.)

  34. Greg Morrow said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    Sorry, didn't mean to imply that Wikipedia was an end-the-discussion source; I just wanted to mention that at least one map of the distribution showed Louisville outside the usual pin-pen merger region. It's entirely possible that the map is outdated, and Louisville has normalized to the rest of the state.

  35. Michael C. Dunn said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    I live on a one block long street. On one end the sign says Red Pine. On the other it says Redpine. The county officially lists it as Red Pine, the Post Office as Redpine.

  36. Rhodent said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    K., It surprises me that your linguistics professor was unaware of the pin-pen merger; I had thought that was reasonably well known. Then again, maybe it only seems that way to me because I went to college in North Carolina.

    I once threw one of my linguistics profs for a loop because he asked me to describe the minimally contrasting pair in "full" and "fool" and I told him they were homophonic (which they are for me).

  37. Eric Baković said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    A correspondent who is either unwilling or unable to post a comment notes the following by e-mail:

    Your "Breckenridge" post on Language Log concerns the phonology of the name, not its spelling. But if you'd like some historical insight (and don't already have it) into the alternative spellings, at least here in Colorado, have a look at a recent Denver Post item.

    (FWIW, I am of the considered opinion that my post concerns both the phonology and the spelling of the name.)

  38. paulie said,

    March 15, 2009 @ 1:29 am

    What I don't understand is, why should the [ɪ]/[ə] distinction present a special problem for Louisvillers? (Louisvillains?) Surely this has nothing to do with the pin/pen merger, since we're talking about the reduction of unstressed vowels. The example you give of reducing vowels to [ɪ] is from Ladefoged, a Briton, and as I recall the British Isles are nowhere near Kentucky. So why should this problem be so peculiar to Louisville?

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 6:01 am

    i grew up in bowling green, kentucky, about two hours south of louisville, and can confirm that the pin/pen merger is in full force there. "ink pen" is indeed the standard disambiguation form, and is itself pronounced in an interesting way that i'm not quite sure how to describe–both words receive stress, but the first gets considerably more; this is similar to the local pronunciation of "bowling green" itself, where stressing the "green" is a sure sign of a newcomer/out-of-towner.

    regarding other schwa-heavy languages, the epenthetic vowels required between most consonants in japanese (particularly notable in borrowings) are usually rendered as schwas (to the extent that they're rendered at all, that is–at full tokyo speed, they're really more like the breath involved in producing a syllabic consonant).

  40. Gabe Ormsby said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    Along the lines of variants within a single named location, I live in the Minneapolis neighborhood called either King Field or Kingfield, depending on what you're reading. Most interesting is the neighborhood association: Official title is "Kingfield Neighborhood Association," but the official initialism is "KFNA." The City of Minneapolis uses both variants on its web site.

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