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My girlfriend giggles whenever I say it, and I never realized that I said it differently then anyone else. But now that I am listening...NOBODY says pellow? They all say pillow. I've listened to my family, mother & father, and grandparents...and I can't figure out where I got this from? Any insights?


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Many Canadians say melk for milk and even when they hear themselves doing it, continue to. I guess the vowels are near each other and the L kind of pulls the i into an e. – Kate Gregory Apr 2 '11 at 0:05
So how do you pronounce the word "fellow"? Like "fillow"? – The Raven Apr 2 '11 at 0:51
My brother in Chicago says malk for milk. Pellow would be a pleasant change. – ChrisO Apr 2 '11 at 3:45
This is one of those questions one is tempted to answer with a single word. – mickeyf Apr 2 '11 at 19:35
Lol...which word is that Mickey? I definitely say Fellow. It seems to be a one way thing. I do say Melk though now that I think about it. yup. – Jared Smith Apr 3 '11 at 8:47
up vote 6 down vote accepted

This sounds like a version of what’s known as the pin/pen merger, or some closely related vowel merger. It’s one of various phonemic mergers in English — processes where in certain accents, in certain contexts, phonemes which were previously/elsewhere differentiated merge to be pronounced the same.

The aforelinked Wiki article has some nice stuff — in particular, it has a nice map of the rough distribution of the pin/pen merger in the US:

Pin/pen merger map, from upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Pin-pen.svg, licensed under GFDL, CC-BY-SA 2.5, 2.0, 1.0

For more detail, there’s also an excellent discussion on Language Log. On the whole it defies summary, but two important take-home points are:

  • these things are notoriously difficult to accurately understand by introspection. What we say often isn’t what we think we say — it really feels to me like I pronounce wine and whine differently, but I sat down with a friend and a tape recorder once and reluctantly admitted that apparently I say them indistinguishably (just as linguists tell me that almost everyone of my geographical/cultural background does).

  • for this and more reasons, written discussion of these things can easily get extremely unenlightening — we can ask each other “so do you also pronounce pig like peg?” but we and anyone reading will all have different ideas of what each of these pronunciations would mean, and none of those may correspond to what any of us actually say! See the comments on the LL post above for many, many examples of this phenomenon…

(I am not a trained linguist, by the way — so anyone more knowledgeable, please feel free to correct any of the above if I’ve gotten something wrong.)

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Map! drool... – Cerberus Apr 2 '11 at 2:02
So what is that weird dot doing there? And, more importantly, whom? – Cerberus Apr 2 '11 at 2:02
@Cerberus: The dot is in the area of Bakersfield. The area received many immigrants from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl period. Looks like they brought the pin/pen merger with them. – mgkrebbs Apr 2 '11 at 5:45
Oh interesting...I did spend several months a year in rural florida growing up...maybe thats where I got it from =) – Jared Smith Apr 3 '11 at 8:48
As I understand the pin/pen merger, it only happens before nasal vowels. So pin and pen are merged, as are him and hem. But bit and bet, and will and well are still different. Different mergers happen before /l/, but this one is not covered in the Wikipedia page, which seems fairly comprehensive to me. – Peter Shor Jul 21 '14 at 12:51

The e and i phonemes frequently mutate back and forth. When I was a child I used to say melk like Kate Gregory. People in the southern U.S. often make the opposite substitution: "tin pinnies" for ten pennies and so on.

Those aren't the only vowels affected. Others are o (as in not) which can be pronounced nawt and naht depending on where you live, a (as in pass) which has wide variation, including pahss and payuss, and so on. As you can see with payuss, diphthongs often creep in as well even in short vowels.

I wouldn't worry too much about it, though. Anything that makes one's girlfriend giggle can't be all bad.

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^^ Agreed Robusto. I try and make her Giggle, and sometimes I try and make her Angry. Usually I just try and make her smile. I totally say Melk too actually. – Jared Smith Apr 3 '11 at 8:50

protected by tchrist Jul 21 '14 at 14:35

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