I’m not trying to pick on Mandarin, cuz surely every language has free variation in the pronunciation of certain words. Tomato/tomahto, right?
Well, what if we narrow it down to mean specifically free variation within a pretty homogeneous group of speakers. That would probably eliminate tomato/tomahto, at least among American English speakers from the West like myself, where tomahtos are an affectation. But you’d still have words like “either” [ee-ther / I-ther], with genuine free variation. And maybe I’m not thinking objectively. Maybe there are loads of them. Realtor / re-la-tor? Noocleeur / nookyulur?
But is it possible that free variation in Mandarin (or within Beijing Mandarin) is just higher? Or free variation is more common on high frequency words?
On Sinoglot we’ve mentioned 菠萝 (pineapple) as bōluó or pōluó (although the survey showed great preference for the standard bōluó). Then there was a weird incident of 比, generally bǐ but once pronounced as pǐ quite clearly on this Beijing Sounds recording.
A while back, walking up the stairs to the apartment, I asked my mother-in-law about her xīgài (膝盖 = knees). She responded that her qīgài were just fine as long as it’s not more than one flight. Weird enough, but many of us with pronunciation fetishes have learned to discount datapoints from the older generation. Not to say that they’re illegit, just that China has changed so fast that some pronunciation differences are purely generational. What you might think is free variation within a regional dialect often turns out to be generational.
But not this time. Not when you add in a discussion from the other day, with a forty-something Beijinger acquaintance and her parents. It went something like this, unprompted by me, as we were talking about the right component of 膝 in 膝盖:
Woman [musing]: Wait, is it xīgài or qīgài?
Me: Isn’t it xīgài?
Father: Qīgài, it’s definitely qīgài.
Mother: No, it should be xīgài.
There was some back and forth, but resolution was reached when I showed them xīgài on my dictionary.
Knees. Geez. Has anyone else come across this?