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.
Free variation may occur between allophones or phonemes.
- 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’