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January 24, 2020

The PIN-PEN Merger

The PIN-PEN merger, where words like "pen", "Lenin", and "hem" sound like "pin," "linen," and "him," is one of the most ubiquitous mergers in American English - but it only started spreading a century ago. Its expansion has been silent, as entire regions of the United States acquire the merger while avoiding societal scrutiny.

Today we'll be taking a look at this common merger and the history behind its appearance, its spread, and how it's regarded.

What is the PIN-PEN merger?

Most dialects of English pronounce words spelled with 'in' differently from word spelled 'en'. This means that "pin" and "pen" aren't homophones, and "ten" and "in" don't rhyme.

But some dialects of English pronounce them so that they sound the same. Usually, the 'en' sounds sound more like the 'in' sound.

You can hear the difference in the following example. The first audio clip is 'when' pronounced with 'en'.

When [wɛn]

The second audio clip is 'when' as spoken by someone with the merger. It sounds like 'win.'

Whin [wɪn]

Who has it?

The PIN-PEN merger is most commonly found among speakers of Southern English. You can hear it in people with strong Southern accents, such as Charlie Daniels (Wilmington, North Carolina), but you can also hear it in people who grew up in the South and otherwise speak General American, like YouTuber Lindsay Ellis (Tennessee).

Johnny said, "Devil, just come on back
If you ever want to try agin
I done told you once you son of a bitch
I'm the best that's ever been
Well fortunately, I have literally never sinned, so condimn away I shall.

Another large group with the merger is speakers of African American Vernacular English. They themselves can be Southern, but they can also be from other regions. Janelle Monae (Kansas City, Kansas), Kanye West (Chicago, Illinois), and Nicki Minaj (born in Trindad, raised in New York, New York) are not from the South, but they all have the PIN-PEN merger. (Not all African American English speakers have the PIN-PEN merger, though, especially if they live outside the South!)

Janelle Monae: I worked with Prince ... as a mintor
Nintindo, and we in the ind zone [...] like we in the frind zone
Okay, get your kids, but then they got their frinds I pulled up in the Benz, they all got up in We all went to din' (dinner)

Although the PIN-PEN merger usually leans in favor of 'PIN', sometimes it can actually lean in favor of 'PEN.' A great example of this is Emily Procter, an actress born and raised in North Carolina, who portrays Ainsley Hayes, a character also from North Carolina. Notice how she pronounces "Pinafore" as "Penafore":

"'He is an Englishman' is from H.M.S. P[ɛ]nafore [...] they're all about duty... then it's p[ɛ]nafore."

Here's a Western example from the show Gravity Falls, that we used earlier in the article. You can hear Colorado native, Kristen Schaal, use the PIN-PEN merger when she says "when" like "win." Contrast this with Los Angeles native Jason Ritter, who uses an un-merged "when."

Dipper: Wh[ɛ]n are we?
Mabel: The real question is, wh[ɪ]n are we?

Where did the PIN-PEN merger come from?

Vivian Brown (1991) argues that the PIN-PEN merger may have originated in English speech patterns. Historically, there were rural Southern Irish varieties with the merger - a feature that may date back to seventeenth century English. It's possible that this is the source of the merger in the Southern United States.

Although most Irish emigrants from the 1800s settled in the Northeastern United States, many Irish Catholics settled in the large cities of the Southeastern United States (e.g. Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans).

The PIN-PEN merger is now sharply recessive in Irish speech. I have found two examples of Irish English speakers with the PIN-PEN merger: a man from Kerry and a woman from Limerick.

(0:30) The price has gone up agin. - A man from Kerry. (Source, Irish English Resource Centre)

(0:20) The price has gone up agin. - A woman from Limerick. (Source, Irish English Resource Centre)

So it's plausible that Irish English was the source of this feature in American English. When do we start finding references to it?

The actual appearance of the PIN-PEN merger in the US isn't clear. Paul Longmore reports that colonial Americans said "ingine instead of engine, and yis instead of yes" (so maybe all 'eh' words were changed to 'ih'), meaning they may have already been a very early PIN-PEN merger from the beginning of colonization.

Meanwhile, the PIN-PEN merger in the United States appears to have started in the American South in the 1800s (Brown).

We don't know if the merger originated in white populations (from Irish immigrants) and spread to black populations, or if it developed independently in black populations and spread to white populations, or even if it was developed independently in both populations, but the end result is that both Black and White Southern Americans ended up acquiring this merger.

The PIN-PEN merger does not appear to have been universal at the time. This testimonial from a former slave does not have the PIN-PEN merger. Slave owner Rebecca Latimer, born in Georgia in 1835, also did not have the merger (video here).

Moreover, a study of Confederate soldiers who escaped to Brazil and had an enclave of English also provides some interesting clues. The descendants of those soldiers still spoke English, but it didn't sound Southern at all - among other things, it had no PIN-PEN merger.

The PIN-PEN merger may have only been occasional in the South in the 1800s, but by the 1900s it started spreading. Bailey and Maynor (1989) say the merger "began in the last part of the nineteenth century and worked its way to completion during the last half century [1900-1950]."

Beginning in 1916 and lasting up until 1970, African Americans began migrating in large numbers out of the South and to the Northeast, the Midwest, or the West. This group would have possibly still had the PIN-PEN merger, which would explain why speakers of African American Vernacular English outside of the South can still have the PIN-PEN merger.

In the early 21st century, the PIN-PEN merger remains widespread among the South and variably in the African American diaspora.

Curiously, there are isolated examples of the PIN-PEN merger happening in the West and Midwest. This could be a result of Southern transplants moving to the West, but it could also be an independent development.

Why does the PIN-PEN merger happen

The most important thing to notice about the pin-pen merger is that it only happens before nasals. This means that "pit" and "pet" are unaffected by the merger. Only "n" and "m" are really affected, since there are not many words ending in "eng".

There are multiple acoustic explanations for why the PIN-PEN merger happened. One of them is that vowels that appear before nasal consonants tend to be nasalized, and this affects production and perception of the vowel. This could have facilitated the merger happening. Another explanation is that PIN and PEN do not actually merge to PIN, but to a vowel between PIN and PEN that most people categorize as PIN - a result of both nasalization and of /i/ vowels being lowered and /e/ vowels being raised in Southern English. (Source 1, Source 2).

The pin-pen merger also doesn't have to be absolute; you can find examples of people who only have it in certain words. An anecdotal example is a friend of mine who pronounces "when" as "win" and once offered me some "Fancy Jims." When I asked her what a Fancy Jim was, she pointed to a bag that said "Fancy Gems." She denies having said "Jims," perhaps because for the most part she does not have the merger.

Effects of the pin-pen merger

The pin-pen merger affects a large number of commonly used words, yet it rarely seems to comprehend intelligibility. The most common mixup, appropriately, is between "pin" and "pen."

I had an encounter once where I asked two store attendants where the "pens" were and one directed me towards the "pens," but the other directed me towards the aisle with pins. The second store attendant not only had the merger, but wasn't able to tell "pen" and "pin" apart in speech. The first store attendant told her "no, those are pins, she's looking for pens, like to write with."

When I've spoken to people who have the complete merger, they tend to be surprised that anyone distinguishes between "pin" and "pen" and say they had never really noticed it before. This is common among people with certain types of mergers that don't attract much attention. An example from a Language Log commenter:

I currently work in Chicago but I'm from South Texas. My boss seems to get a real kick out of my pronunciation of the word "pen".

We have to go to him for supplies and he always make me repeat myself whenever I ask for one and laughs incessantly. He says that I pronounce the word "pen" is funny. My ignorance must shine through because although I've tried to understand the "sound" difference between "pin" and "pen", I just can't. You write with a "pen", you stick something to the wall with a "pin".

He states that I say "pin" when I should say "pen". When back home in Texas, when asked for a "pen", I've never given someone a "pin" or the other way around. So I don't understand how he hears a difference.

That being said, when people become aware of the pin-pen merger, it can become a source of mockery, as this author shows.

I recall reading an article (now unfortunately lost) about a college student from Oklahoma who went out of state for college, and who was made fun of for multiple Southernisms. His classmates purported to "teach him" how to speak "properly." One of the differences he had to learn was between "pin" and "pen." (Another one was to say "milk" instead of "malk.")

The pin-pen merger opens up a number of rhyme, pun, and joke possibilities that aren't possible if you distinguish pin-pen. The following are some examples:

"Ken, which is Nick backwards" - Griffin, Episode 419 of podast My Brother, My Brother, and Me
I can be a piece of sunshine, inner peace, inner-tainer (entertainer)
Rocket, Beyonce
an image of a hand holding small liquors with the text saying So Mini Options Innergy Meditations

The Ind Isn't Near

The PIN-PEN merger doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon and may even spread to other American dialects. But it doesn't seem like it's going to affect every dialect of American English. As has been mentioned on this blog and on practically every article about linguistics, language change is inevitable, and that sometimes includes mergers.

The PIN-PEN merger is an example of how language change can happen right under our noses and both the people affected and those not can be unaware of it. The world didn't end and the English language was not split in two; now one side just has to mention when they talk about an ink pen or a sewing pin. It's a harmless difference that has also opened up a number of interesting artistic and comedic avenues.

Do you have the PIN-PEN merger? Were you aware of it before reading this article? Have you ever tried learning to distinguish between the two? And if you don't have the merger, do you notice it in those who have it? What are some cases when there's been a mixup due to the merger?

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  1. Nichelle Nichols has it on the Innerprise.

    And so did Proto-Germanic. ("Ring" is famously still rengas in Finnish, which got it from a late Pre-Proto-Germanic stage. The Finns themselves were Φιννοί for Ptolemy, but still Fenni for Tacitus the century before.) All /εN/ words in Germanic today are either loans (like pen itself) or come (through /eN/) from /aNCi/.

    1. That's remarkable - I wondered if there was a PIN-PEN merger in other languages as well. The circular nature of language change never ceases to amaze me.

      There's also a wider PIT-PET merger in Newfoundland English (and per Longmore, in some early Colonial American dialects), but I don't know if it started with the nasal merger.

    2. PIN-PEN is not so much circular as just common. I just ran into this paper finding it in Proto-Celtic or thereabouts on p. 1197.

    3. ...and again in the British branch on p. 1200.

  2. One of the first people to say Zelensky on US media must have the merger, because now Trump, for example, says it that way.

  3. Only "n" and "m" are really affected, since there are not many words ending in "eng".

    Are there any? I can't think of any, and here's the claim that "/ɛŋ/ is phonotactically impossible" in English, explaining the universal /ɪ/ in English and meaning that the question of whether the pin-pen merger applies before /ŋ/ is moot.

    1. I've read about supposed conservative speakers of General American who have [ɛŋ] in words like "strength" and "length" (and I suppose names like "Spengler" too), but I haven't encountered those versions in real life. You either have the /ŋ/ assimilate to a [n] if it's a cluster like "strength", or some sort of diphthongization of the /ɛ/.

      My impression is that most Americans go with the latter strategy. It may even change the underlying phonological form - in my idiolect I consider "strength" and "change" to be in the same category, not "strength" and "lent." If Southerners agree with me on that, then /ɛŋ/ words may be out of the count entirely because there wouldn't actually be any /ɛŋ/ words due to raising.

      I've never heard of forms like str[ɪŋ]th or Sp[ɪŋ]gler either (though it must have happened historically, see: [ɪŋ]gland). But sometimes I'll be convinced a form doesn't exist and then encounter it unexpectedly - I didn't think there was a "reverse PIN-PEN merger," until I came across the clip from "West Wing."

      I've also never heard of the prior strategy (ŋ becomes n) being subject to the merger, either (so "strength" would be [strɪnθ]), though I don't think there's anything stopping it.

    2. Not exactly a source, but this flickr thread shares my suspicion that the velar nasal in "strength" assimilating to [n] is relatively rare: "I don't think I ever heard an American (which I am) pronounce it strenth until 20 or 25 years ago. I thought maybe it was an African-American way of saying it. I actually think I pronounce it more like strenkth and lenkth myself."

      I don't think I've heard str[ɛn]th or str[ɪn]th from AAVE speakers myself (and I wonder if this may be the frequency illusion at play), but perhaps it does exist as an alternate form.

    3. Oh yes, Wiktionary confirms I don't just have a spelling-pronunciation: -[ɛŋθ] exists (and so does -[ɛŋkθ]).

      Of course velar raising strikes for those that have it (in egg, leg...)

      I didn't think there was a "reverse PIN-PEN merger," until I came across the clip from "West Wing."

      Are you sure it's not a hypercorrectivism?

    4. Very late reply, but two things:

      One, I don't think it's a hypercorrection. My partner has the PIN-PEN merger, and I've noticed that while for the most part they go for a PIN vowel, on occasion they will go for a PEN vowel, even in places where you would historically expect PIN. If they want to produce an unmerged sound, they guide themselves with the spelling, but sometimes they go 'off-book' and have an unexpected PEN vowel. I don't think this is uncommon with PIN-PEN merging varieties, which could suggest that it's really more like IN and EN are in variation and only barely related to the historical pronunciations.

      Secondly, I actually found an example of -eng as [ɪŋ]: in an episode of the Proud Family, the character Trudy Proud says "he's a five-hundred pound b[ɪŋ]gal tiger." She's voiced by Paula Jai Parker, who is an African-American speaker of African American English. I didn't listen for any other examples of the PIN-PEN merger, but this one stuck out because it shows a different rule ordering for pre-nasal vowels than I expected.

    5. If they want to produce an unmerged sound, they guide themselves with the spelling, but sometimes they go 'off-book' and have an unexpected PEN vowel.

      That sounds exactly like hypercorrection...

      b[ɪŋ]gal tiger

      Good catch!

      (Posting with my Google account because otherwise my comment mysteriously disappears without any error message.)

    6. I think the "Bengal tiger" example is not an example of phonemic /ŋ/, since here /ŋ/ is just an allophone of /n/ before /g/. So a speaker with the pin-pen merger would pronounce the name "Ben Gill" with /ɪŋ/ as well. There are plenty of cases of /ɛŋ/ that you could discover if looking at non-phonemic instances of /ŋ/.

      For my own accent (from California), words like "rang" sound like "rain", while words like "king" sound like "keen." So, "length" and "strength" have the same vowel as "rang" and "rain." And "English" has the same vowel as "king" and "keen." However, I have heard the pronunciations "lenth" and "strenth" (rhyming with "tenth") among Indian-Americans. So that pronunciation could be common or even predominant in Indian English.

    7. @Dylan

      Yes, that is a possible analysis with 'Bengal', that the [ŋ] is allophonic. If that's the case, then there could be people who have 'Bingal' (underlying /n/) but not 'stringth' (underlying /ŋ/).

      Since writing this article, I've actually come across examples such as 'stringth', and 'strength' /strɛŋθ/ is definitely phonemic /ŋ/.

      So it would be interesting to find examples where someone has this split, of 'Bingal' but 'stringth'. Maybe I should get back to watching more "Proud Family" and keeping an eye on Trudy.

      My own intuition is that the relevant part is what realization of /ɛŋ/ is allowed, regardless of whether that [ŋ] is allophonic or phonemic. Someone with the PIN-PEN merger but velar-raising may have 'Bin Gill' (with coarticulated [ŋ]) but 'Be[I]ngal' and 'stre[I]ngth'.

      And even more interesting, now that I think about it, is what this means for words with /æŋ/. For me, 'rang' and 'strength' basically rhyme, and I'd say both have merged to /ɛŋ/. I imagine people who have the pre-nasal merger in 'strength' would nevertheless pronounce 'rang' differently. But... could there be people who have 'rang' and 'strength' both with underlying /ɛŋ/ and have applied the PIN-PEN merger, such that 'strength' is 'stringth' and 'rang' is 'ring'? (I'm inclined to say I've never heard this - but I've often been surprised by forms I find in the wild.)

  4. Hello, I have a little technical problem, "spelled with differently from word spelled ." appears on my browser(Opera). It's probably something to do with these characters ><

    1. Good catch! I had use those carats to surround 'en' and 'in', and Blogger misread them as HTML tags. They should be appearing now. :)

  5. It's interesting that U.Penn's map doesn't include far SWVA, but I coded a letter from 1959 that included a phonological pattern of spelling that indicates this merger and I know my family there has always used it~ Amy Clark, author of Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community (U. Press of KY, 2014)

  6. This anecdote probably doesn't belong on your page, but I felt compelled to share.

    I grew up in Jackson County, Florida, but I didn't move here until I was 2. My daddy was from Arkansas, but my mom was from New Jersey. I grew up speaking just slightly different from my peers. It usually wasn't that big a deal, but one particular instance from my childhood sticks out.

    In 2nd grade, my teacher (Mrs. Askew — it's funny how we remember these names, isn't it?) was teaching us about homophones one day. Well, she wrote 'pen' and 'pin' on the board to explain it. Every other child in the class understood, but I raised my hand.

    'But teacher, pen and pin sound different, they aren't the same!' I argued. 'Pen! Pin!' Well, Mrs. Askew, instead of explaining a big concept like linguistic or regional differences to me (though I was smart for my age, I would have understood if she'd just told me) said I was wrong. I went home to my mother and told her about it. She told me that I was right and the teacher didn't know how to talk. I know my mother called her about it, but I don't know what she said. I wish I did!

    Now, looking back, I feel bad for my teachers. I was always inquisitive but ornery. Poor Mrs. Askew. I hope my mom wasn't too harsh with her.

    Anyway, thank you for this page.

    Also, I still live in Jackson County and I doubt I'll ever want to leave.

    1. I've got a sort of opposite story. I grew up in Virginia, but picked up the pin-pen merger from the Louisiana side of my family. I remember around third grade being very confused that most everyone else seemed to know the difference between immigration and emigration while I couldn't figure it out without knowing the context. Those two words quickly became some of third grade me's least favorites.

  7. What about the spelling itself?
    I am writing with someone who uses the spelling 'pin' for 'pen' in reference to an animal's cage. I asked and she claimed that is how she has always seen it spelled.

    I haven't asked, but it is possible she was raised outside the States. Or it is simply a mispelling she grew up with. Just find it curious...

    1. A quick Google search shows that "animal pin" (for a cage) is used very rarely, even as a misspelling, but "animal pen" is not. She may be confused since "pin" is a spelling for another similarly sounding word, or may not remember "pen" as being different from "pin" since they're pronounced the same to her.

      Etymonline notes for pen: ""small enclosure for domestic animals," Old English penn, penne, a word of uncertain origin, perhaps related to Old English pinn "pin, peg" (see pin (n.)) on the notion of a bolted gate or else "structure made of pointed stakes.""

      The oxford english dictionary also vouches for the Middle English 'pin' spelling:
      "Forms: early Middle English pinne, Middle English peny (probably transmission error), Middle English peyn, Middle English pin, Middle English–1600s penne, Middle English– pen, 1600s pend, 1600s– penn (now chiefly in sense 4). "

      But this spelling doesn't seem to be in use today. I'd wager your friend was confused, or insecure about her spelling.

  8. I am from CA, so I generally do not have the pin-pen merger, but I have some grandparents with the full merger, and some words end up merged for me. The words I have noticed are: when, them, entertain, enterprise, engine, engineer. Oddly, the word "melt" also is shifted from /ɛ/ to /ɪ/, but this would not be related to the pin-pen merger since it is not pre-nasal.

  9. This is wild. I grew up in the South and had never really put together how common it was for people NOT to pronounce "pen" and "pin" the same.

    The only thing I ever noticed was "British people say 'penguin' different," I didn't realize it was part of a broader phenomenon.

  10. While this is pretty old article I thought I would identify as apparently Spokane Washington has a surprisingly high percentage of the pin-pen merger. While I did not pick up a lot regional accent the way other members of my family did. When I moved to Chicago, the pin-pen and the "phantom t" as my friend put it at the end of across. (I walked acrosst the street) would cause people quite a bit of confusion.

  11. I was born and raised, and still reside in southwestern Indiana. I went back to school for education in my mid twenties, and immediately started working as a Kindergarten teacher. All my life, I never realized that I pronounced pen as pin, ten as tin, etc. Not only that, I never noticed the difference in other’s speech. That is, until I started teaching Kindergarten, where my job is to literally teach these sounds. I noticed it during my first year, although not at first. It took noticing a consistency of misspelled words in short e word families until I realized that I had been teaching them all wrong because I was saying them all wrong myself. I had to start watching everything I said, and make it a point to catch short e words before they came out of my mouth, even if it meant a pause in my speech. I had to also make sure I practiced this in my life outside the classroom, as the pen-pin merger is very difficult to correct once you become aware of it. It’s kinda a big deal when your job includes teaching kids how to read! Cut to several years later and although I am better and faster at catching myself and the making correct pronunciation outside the classroom now, it definitely is something I still struggle with. It simply does not “feel” natural! Makes me wonder how in the world I ever passed a single test of my own in school!

  12. In the Chicago area there is a reverse "pin-pen" merger where many blue collar folks, especially from the south side and south suburbs, but also on some parts of the north side, pronounce all "in/en" as "en". My neighbor always says "enteresting" and "enner" circle. A co-worker frequently tells me to "come right en". The other day he said it was very "wendy" outside instead of "windy". He thinks my son is very "entelligent". The funny thing is that these folks also say "ellanoy" for "Illinois" and even "french room" for "front room".

  13. Over here on the east side of the pond I cannot think of any British accent that has the "pin-pen" merger but in many Scottish accents "pin" and "pun" are virtually indistinguishable. There are, however, many accents where we pronounce "strength" and "length" as "strenth" and "lenth", including West Wales (where I was raised) and Northern England ( where I live). In working class areas of London these are further modified to "strenf" and "lenf".

  14. I'm from Louisville and I have the merger. It seems to be reasonably common here despite the region not having many other Southernisms by this point in time. When I was a kid the phrase was ALWAYS "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit." I hadn't heard of the "don't be upset" variant until I was an adult. There's also a bowling alley in town called Ten Pin Lanes, a name which relies on the merger in order to be catchy. I was quite shocked upon learning that some people differentiate between "pin" and "pen!"