Glossary of Linguistic Terms

Free Variation

Definition: 

Free variation is the interchangeable relationship between two phones, in which the phones may substitute for one another in the same environment without causing a change in meaning.

Discussion: 

Free variation may occur between allophones or phonemes.

Examples: 

(English)

  • In utterance-final position, there is free variation between unreleased and aspirated plosives, as demonstrated below:
    • [hQt|] ‘hat’
    • [hQtH] ‘hat’
  • In the word ‘data’, there is free variation between the phonemes /eJ/ and /Q/, as demonstrated below:
    • [deJR«] ‘data’
    • [dQR«] ‘data’

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