If the same word is pronounced two distinct ways with one sound different, say "tomato" and "to-mah-to", is the sound that differs a different phoneme?

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    There's no way to tell with just this information. You need more information. How are the two ways the word is pronounced "distinct"? Are they noticeable to all speakers, some speakers, or practically no native speakers? Are the sounds interchangeable in other words, or are there some words where they cannot be interchanged? Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 4:27
  • In the case of 'tomato' I'd say they're phonemes, not allophones. I can't think of a minimal pair in American English offhand, but in RP 'dart' and 'date' would make a minimal pair. Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 5:53
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    @WavesWashSands 'Pay' and 'Pa'. Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 13:08

1 Answer 1


If the same word can always be pronounced two distinct ways with sound X or sound Y, "tomato" and "to-mah-to", that is known as free variation. If two distinct words are distinguished by a single difference in sound, then the pair of words is a minimal pair, and the two sounds are distinct phonemes. But "tomato" and "to-mah-to" are not distinct words, they are the same word, pronounced different ways. (Actually that's a terrible example because it's a song lyric, not a linguistic example, but there are analogous examples like the first syllable of "economic" which can, for many people, be either [ɛ] or [ɪj]).

The nuclei [ɛj] and [ɑ] are not in free variation in English, see for example "date" and "dot" or "sate", "sot" and "sought" (the latter two because the vowel of "tomahto" is either the vowel of "sot" or that of "sought", depending on how you neutralize the difference, if you do). Uncontroversially, [ɛj] and [ɑ] are distinct phonemes as established by minimals pairs. In fact "tomato" ~ "tomahto" is non-systematic and doesn't reflect a rule: they come from different linguistic systems. Likewise, "pasta, Mazda" are pronounced with [æ] north of the border and with [ɑ] south of the border, so these vowels are also not in free variation. There is no potato ~ potahto variation outside of humor. Such two-pronunciation cases generally reflect competing strategies for dealing with spelling when there are multiple possibilities for pronunciation.

  • I thought "tomato" was actualy pronounced with the vowel of neither "dot" nor "sought", but of "dart" for most people who have /ɑ/ in this word Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 7:22
  • @sumelic - I was also surprised, but the Oxford dictionary says that in the US English "dot" and "dart" have the same vowel phoneme, namely /ɑ/. The Collins dictionary says the same.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 9:52
  • @sumelic Probably the vowel in 'dot' and 'dart' are the same for people with the father-bother merger? Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 13:09
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    Actually, no, I have that merger and yet pre-r quality is phonetically quite different. 'Dot' is [dɔt] albeit less round than canonical [ɔ], but 'dart' is [dart] though less from that canonical [a]. Actually, the a/ɔ contrast exists only in pre-r context, in 'part' [part] vs 'port' [pɔrt], but "a" is not the fronter lower IPA vowel [a] as in Canadian "æ' ('ham' = [ham]). Lowish backish vowel letters are confusing
    – user6726
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 14:44

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