The phonology of English shows extensive variance among its multitude of dialects. Which phoneme(s) shows the most variance throughout the language?

I think the most immediately apparent choice would be /r/: [ɹ], [ɻ], [ɾ], [r], [ʋ], [ɹ̈] (bunched molar), and [ʁ] (quite rare now I think) all exist. That isn’t even considering secondary articulations - like velarization and labialization - or nonrhoticity. Alternatively, the frontrunner which seems promising to me is the GOAT vowel - often broadly transcribed as either /əʊ/, /oʊ/, or /o/. Depending on a speaker’s accent, the vowel can be realized either as a monophthong or as a diphthong ending in [ʊ̯], [u̯ ~ w], [ʉ̯], [ʏ̯], [ə̯], and possibly other qualities. The primary portion of the vowel can vary from [ə] to [o] to [ɤ] to [ɔ] to [ʌ] to [a] to [ɐ] to [ɘ] to possibly [ɛ] and everywhere in between (lol).

I would appreciate educated input into my inquiry. Alternatively, which phoneme has the least variance? I was thinking something like /m/, /f/, or /v/, perhaps - the only variant I know is [ɱ] which isn’t really specific to certain dialects.

  • How do you define variance in a consistent way? We can measure how "far apart" two vowels are with formants, but that doesn't really work for consonants.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 19:05
  • @Draconis Good point. There isn’t a truly non-subjective way of answering this question. I guess one could have speakers listen to others’ realizations of the phonemes and sort of impressionistically decide how different they seem from their own. Then, you could determine which phonemes are likely to have large standard deviations, interquartile ranges, and highly disparate outliers.
    – Graham H.
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 19:27
  • @Draconis And I think the “right” answer is likely to be a vowel phoneme, anyway - especially one of the diphthongs. As you say, it’s easier to measure the difference between vowel phones by determining the formants.
    – Graham H.
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 19:29


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