ᴛʟᴅʀ: Which regions say the word experiment with its stressed syllable sounding like the word spare, and which regions say that word’s stressed syllable like the word spear?

PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT a survey question!

When it comes to pronouncing the word experiment, there appear to be two dominant North American pronunciations that are rather distinct from one another.

  1. Many people have the SQUARE vowel, as though the word spare were embedded in it. Discounting the rhotic, this appears to be the FACE vowel.
    (But sᴇᴇ ʙᴇʟᴏᴡ if you don’t merge merry–marry–Mary.)
  2. Some people have the NEAR vowel, as though the word spear were embedded. Discounting the rhotic, this appears to be the FLEECE vowel.

    (I’ve used Wells lexical sets here instead of the International Phonetic Alphabet in the hopes of making this question more accessible to a broader readership.)

Is there any geographic data on the distribution of these various different pronunciations? If not, can we surmise or infer any?

Does it matter whether it’s a noun or a verb?

Burying Barrie’s berries

Listening more closely, those from the first set aren’t all quite the same: a minority have the DRESS vowel there, not the FACE vowel. These speakers do not have the merry–marry–Mary merger, so they say it with the stressed vowel of berry, which for them is different from the one in Barrie or bury.

For me, those are all the same. Because my own accent ignores the tense–lax distinction before a rhotic, I still perceive both of those subtypes as having the same phoneme, and it is only when listening carefully as one does when transcribing an unknown language that I can make out a FACE/DRESS distinction between some sets of speakers.

After listening to a hundred samples, I’m now certain that there are a few speakers with the NURSE vowel there, as though the word spur were embedded. There might be some who shorten up FLEECE to the KIT vowel, but due to tense–lax neutralization, I’m not very accomplished at distinguishing tense vowels like FACE or FLEECE from lax ones like DRESS or KIT before phonemic /r/. Wikipedia notes:

In many North American dialects, there are ten or eleven stressed monophthongs; only five or six vowel contrasts are possible before a following /r/ in the same syllable (peer, pear, purr, par, pore, poor).

It’s the first two (or three) of those that I’m talking about here.


An earlier version of this question narrowly transcribed the SQUARE version as [ɛksˈpʰeɻəmɛnt] and the NEAR version as [ɨgzˈbiːɻəmɪnt]. That's probably over-exaggerating differences of assimilatory voicing, aspiration, and reduction — aspects that are not the main point of my question. I’m just trying to divvy people up into the SQUARE group versus the NEAR group to see whether there are specific regional patterns in these two variations.

Dictionaries are a poor source for geographical data of finer granularity than grouping an entire country or even continent together, but here’s what they said:

  • The OED has /ɛkˈspɛrɪmənt/ for both noun and verb.

  • Cambridge has UK /ɪkˈsper.ɪ.mənt/ US /ɪkˈsper.ə.mənt/

  • Collins has UK /ɪkˈspɛrɪmənt/ (noun), /ɪkˈspɛrɪˌmɛnt/ (verb) and US /ɛkˈspɛrəmənt/, /ɪkˈspɛrəmənt/; also, & for v. usually, /ɛkˈspɛrəmɛnt/, /ɪkˈspɛrəmɛnt/; often, /ɛkˈspɪrəmɛnt/, /ɪkˈspɪrəmɛnt/.

  • MacMillan has noun /ɪkˈsperɪmənt/, verb /ɪkˈsperɪˌment/.

What I’m looking for here is more finely-grained geographic grouping than just US-vs-UK the way those dictionaries provide.

Any Geographical Data?

I’ve looked to see whether the usual suspects for such things have any geographical descriptions of these two versions, preferably maps, but came up empty-handed.

I suspect that even in the absence of such maps, the distinct phonological processes at work in the two versions may be sufficiently characteristic of one or another region of North America that a good answer to the question of which regions say which of these could be formulated.

  • 2
    do you have any recording of the voiced version? – David Haim Jan 10 '18 at 12:23
  • 1
    Exit has a similar pronunciation divide; unlike experiment, I don't beleive the g version is purely American. – TimLymington Jan 10 '18 at 12:54
  • 1
    @tchrist I agree that these speakers say something like (ɪ/ə)kspir(ɪ/ə)m(ɪ/ə)nt except maybe one female speaker who actually says it with ɛ. my non-acedemic-non-native theory is that these people sort of merge the pronunciation of "experiment" and "experience" since they're very close both in pronunciation, writing and in meaning. – David Haim Jan 10 '18 at 12:55
  • 1
    @PeterShor I did mention that some speakers have /ɛr/ not /er/ there, but that this was hard for me to distinguish because I've merged those. Nonetheless, in a recent sampling I made in pursuits of answers, all the UK speakers had /ɛr/ not /er/, even the Scot who of course had other interesting properties as well. The Scot clearly did not have the merger. – tchrist Jan 13 '18 at 21:09
  • 1
    @DavidHaim Very much so. It's a monophthong for many of us before /r/, among other places. Notice the IPA transcriptions from the various dictionaries have no diphthong there. – tchrist Jan 14 '18 at 13:28

Here are my thoughts, guesses, and the small amount of evidence that I have gathered.

The pronunciation of experiment with the "merry" vowel (which is the same as the "square" vowel for speakers with the merry-Mary merger, and the same as the "nurse" vowel for speakers with the "ferry–furry merger") seems likely to be more widespread: as indicated in the original question, it's the main pronunciation given by dictionaries. It's also the pronunciation that would be "expected" based on theoretical considerations: a single vowel letter (other than <u>) in a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed, non-word-final syllable tends to correspond to a "short" vowel in pronunciation (this is sometimes called "Luick's Law"; it's also related to the phenomenon called "trisyllabic laxing", although that name is usually used to refer to some kind of process supposed to specifically affect the pronunciation of certain kinds of derived words, and it seems a bit questionable to me to classify "experiment" as "derived" because even though we can identify an ending -ment and an initial element experi- that occur in other words, both would be bound morphemes; no word like *experi occurs in English as a free base).

I suspect the pronunciation of experiment with the "near" vowel arose either due to influence of the spelling (the pronunciation of "e" in contexts like this tends to be rather unpredictable), the influence of the pronunciation of the related word experience (where the "near" vowel is regular because of the occurence of unstressed "i" before another vowel in the next syllable), or some combination of both.

The phonetic similarity of the vowels might also have contributed to the development and maintenance of the variation. (There are a number of other words of Greek or Latin origin spelled with "erV" (where "V" is any vowel letter) that show variation between these two vowels, such as feral, sclera, query, inherent, coherent, adherent, hysteria—although in these words the "near" vowel is actually preferred by prescriptivists because the vowel occurs in a stressed penultimate syllable, or before unstressed "i" followed by another vowel—and (atmo)spheric(al), for which most prescriptive sources seem to prefer the short vowel, but the long vowel of "near" seems to be common, probably in large part because of influence from the related noun (atmo)sphere.)

I think spelling pronunciations and analogical changes tend to have less clearly defined regional distributions than regular sound changes/mergers, so I am not sure if it would be possible to determine any geographical trends. Like you, I haven't found any source that addresses this question.

The use of the "near" vowel is denounced by Charles Harrington Elster, author of the prescriptive pronunciation guide The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations. The relevant entry is available as part of the examples on PBS's website at "What Speech Do We Like Best?":

Experiment ek-SPER-uh-mi̲nt or ek-SPAIR-uh-mi̲nt. The first syllable is often, and acceptably, lightened to ik-.

Do not say ek-SPEER-uh-mi̲nt. Properly, there is no spear in experiment.

Examples from the past

The variant with the "near" vowel doesn't seem to be particularly recent. It was warned against in an issue of the San Bernardino Daily Sun from Monday, August 4, 1947:

There is no "spear" in experiment. The "e" in the second syllable should have the short (eh) sound as in error, errand. Be sure to say: ek-SPEHR-i-m'nt.

[...] Two other words which [sic] the second syllable "e" is heard erroneously as "ee" are severity, as "suh-VEER-i-tee," and sincerity as "sin-SEER-i-tee." But, like the second syllable "e" of experiment the "e's" should be short (eh) as: suh-VEHR-i-tee, sin-SEHR-i-tee.

("Take my word for it", by Frank Colby)

There seems to be some evidence of this pronunciation from the 19th century in the form of the spelling "expeeriment" that seems to have been used intentionally by some authors in dialogue to indicate the pronunciation with the "near" vowel. The context suggests that the authors viewed it as a pronunciation that might be heard from "substandard" speakers.

Here are some examples I found using Google Books, going from most to least recent:

  • 1898:

    "Now, let's try an expeeriment!" said he, quite in the tone of a Franklin, or a scientific philosopher of modern days. "There's nawthin' like expeerimental conclusions. Jes' you turn your back toward the door, an' I'll turn the lock. There! Did you hear it, sir? Good! hardly noticed it at all, you say? Ah! I thought so; that'll do finely! Well, we'll try the hinges, now. How does it go, sir? Couldn't hear 'em at all, hey? Ha, ha! My expeeriment's bean a suckcess. ..."

    (p. 511, The Latimers: a tale of the western insurrection of 1794, by the American author Henry Christopher McCook)

  • 1889:

    "I guess Thorne's well-meanin' enough," said the other pacifically. "He's a scientific feller, and he's jist wantin' to expeeriment a bit."

    "Well, he kin expeeriment all he wants to with his iron and stuff, but I'd advise him to let flesh and blood alone."

    (p. 298, Alan Thorne, by Martha Livingston Moodey)

Interestingly, some of the even earlier results for "expeeriment" on Google Books suggest that at one point, some authors associated this pronunciation with dialectal Scottish English, although I don't know if this was an accurate perception or if it was solely based on stereotypes or misconceptions about how Scottish speakers pronounced vowels. (And even if this pronunciation was in fact commonly heard from Scottish speakers in the past, I don't know if that's at all related to the use of the pronunciation with the "near" vowel by some present-day American English speakers).

I found a source ("Overt and Covert Scots Features in Ulster Speech", by G. Brendan Adams) that says that Scots may have the "feel" vowel in some contexts where English has the "pet" vowel, giving the examples "heid" = "head", "sweit" = "sweat", "frein" = "friend", "deid" = "dead" and "weel" = "well". But the words head, sweat, friend, dead all originally had long vowels, and well seems to have maybe had a long vowel in Old English, so the use of [i] in these words in Scots actually seems like a retention of vowels that English shortened rather than the result of any kind of Scottish [ɛ] > [i] change that didn't occur in English. I know very little about this however so this is just my rambling thoughts.

  • 1875:

    I'm far frae discooragin' ye frae tryin' the expeeriment.' An he baggit the ciller,--ha, ha, ha!"

    (p. 31, The Adventures of Mick Callighin, M.P.: A Story of Home Rule; And, The De Burghos, by W. R. Ancketill)

    This book is set in Ireland, but the speaker here has a Scottish accent for some reason; on a previous page he says "Cawmill they ca' me in Coonty Doon ; we're a' Scoatch in thae pairts" (p. 26).

  • 1828:

    But a' the whilk time I ganged o'er the Atlantic, just for the sak of expeeriment, an' travel, and sic like--naething ither, tent ye--for I were weel aff at hame, in Embro', an' might ha'e hangit half the ceety

    (p. 4, "The Barber's Letter", Ps and Qs)

One thing I wondered was if we could look at rhymes to see evidence of how people pronounced it, but the short-e pronunciation seems to only have one rhyme, in "merriment" (used by the Victorian poet Robert Browning in the poem "The Glove": "Amid the Court's scoffing and merriment,— / As if from no pleasing experiment") and the long-e pronunciation only a possible rhyme for American English speakers in the obscure word "diriment" (for speakers with the serious-Sirius merger) or maybe a nonce-word "cheeriment" derived from "cheery".

Examples from the present

A similar question was asked on the GameSpot Forums, in the thread When did it become "Ex-peer-i-ment"? from 2002. But the participants there didn't seem to know of any regional patterns within the US either. The original poster said:

I've been noticing this more and more, lately. I used to think it was a regional thing in the US, although I wasn't really clear what region it was.

In a later post, he says

I've lived in Boulder, Colorado for most of my life but I'm originally from New York. My "accent" would be consistent with the Denver Metropolotan area, which as far as the US goes is one of the more "unaccented" examples of American English (or so I've been told).

  • I hadn't considered words like query or coherent that can have either of SQUARE or NEAR as well, just like experiment. That you've identified a bunch of other words with the same variation (but not veeriation) may well suggest that it is not just from the influence of experience. That said, I've not heard anyone say severity or sincerity with the NEAR vowel. – tchrist Jan 15 '18 at 5:10
  • @tchrist: Actually, I think I myself vacillated a bit on "severity" in the past: I would definitely use SQUARE today, but I think that's at least in part because I "know" that it's the "correct" way to say it. "Seveerity" doesn't sound particularly improbable to me. But I agree that this doesn't seem to be a particularly widespread pronunciation, unlike "expeeriment", which is common enough to have gotten into some dictionaries. I'd guess "variation" is safe at least in part because the spelling with "a" doesn't mesh well with a pronunciation with NEAR. – sumelic Jan 15 '18 at 5:13
  • @tchrist: Another thing that may or may not be relevant is that the first vowel of "variation" only has secondary stress. John Walker’s entry (1791) for "variation" interestingly says that "Mr. Sheridan has given this a the short sound of the Italian a" (although Walker doesn't agree with this transcription, as he views it as irregular) – sumelic Jan 15 '18 at 6:15
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    @DavidHaim: IPA isn't very precise in general, and IPA for English vowels specifically is a pain because the "pluricentric" nature of standard English and the long and widespread tradition of transcription means that there are a lot of different ways to transcribe things, and some people get a bit dogmatic about their way being the best. Depending on different things, the vowel in "square" could be transcribed variously as /ɛː/, /ɛ/, /eə/, /ɛə/, /e/, /eː/, or any of these with a rhotic hook. The vowel in "near" could be transcribed as /ɪː/, /ɪ/, /ɪə/, /i/... – sumelic Jan 15 '18 at 16:12
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    @DavidHaim: ...and the vowel of "dress" can be transcribed as /e/ or /ɛ/. Using only a single one of these transcription variants would I think give my answer a sense of false precision, while using all of them would be a pain. You can read about these kinds of variations in phonetics, or just in transcription, in any source that gives a somewhat comprehensive coverage of English vowel phonology, but that's not really what this question is about, so I didn't want to get into that here. – sumelic Jan 15 '18 at 16:13

Some data from major pronunciation dictionaries:

LPD-3 (Wells 2008):

noun (BrE): ɪk ˈsper ɪ mənt (the main variant); ek-, ək-, -ə- (alternative variants)

verb (BrE): ɪk ˈsper ɪ ment (the main variant); ek-, ək-, -ə- (alternative variants)

noun (US): -ˈspɪr-

verb (US): -ˈspɪr-

CEPD-18 (Roach, Setter & Esling 2011):

noun: ɪkˈsper.ɪ.mənt, ek-, ˈ-ə-

verb: ɪkˈsper.ɪ.ment, ek-, ˈ-ə-

The Routledge Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English (Upton & Kretzschmar 2017):

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  • It seems worthwhile to draw attention here to fact that your first two references are using /e/ to mean [ɛ]. Even though most people are used to seeing the /r/ phoneme not actually meaning a real [r], using /e/ for [ɛ] the way Wells has always done is not something everyone is aware of. – tchrist Jan 16 '18 at 2:13

I say:

X - peri - ment

and I come from Manchester, UK.

Does this help?

  • 2
    No, not really, although I appreciate the attempt. In the first place, I'm not trying to run a survey; those don't work in our format. I'm trying to get a description of where each of several pronunciations are commonly said, described either in prose or on a map, or both. Second, you cannot use English letters to specify a pronunciation. For non-specialists, it is probably best to indicate which other words have the same rhyme for you, such as pear or pair or payer or mare or mere, or the same vowel as nurse or mirror or nearer or berry. Specialists might try IPA. – tchrist Jan 14 '18 at 17:35

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