Tuesday, 28 December 2010

merry Mary and hairy Harry

An American academic, not a phonetician but working in a related field, sufficiently eminent that I have heard his name and even read one of his books, wrote to me asking for help in puzzling out the sets of words in which he, like many other Americans, makes no distinction.
I pronounce “merry”, “Mary”, and “marry” as homophones, as many Americans do, but a good many other Americans (and, I believe, a higher proportion of Brits) pronounce all three differently.

I referred him to vol. 1 of Accents of English, which he seems delighted with.

It’s not just that “a higher proportion” of Brits distinguish the three sets. As far as I know, all do. To the best of my knowledge no native speakers of English outside north America lack the three-way distinction merry — Mary — marry (RP ˈmeri, ˈmeəri, ˈmæri). We do not rhyme sharing with herring. We do not rhyme clarity with prosperity.

Just as this fact may come as a surprise to Americans, and seem problematic and mysterious, so it can be a surprise for non-Americans to find that some Americans make no distinction. And Americans can therefore get confused over spelling in cases where we never would.
Words like merry belong under DRESS, those like marry under TRAP, and those like Mary under SQUARE, which historically is derived from FACE. So you can often tell which word belongs where by reference to the spelling. Before double rr, the spelling e indicates DRESS and a indicates TRAP. With a before single r the vowel may be SQUARE, as in vary, parent, aware, compare, garish, Carey; but because our spelling system does not consistently distinguish short and long vowels before a single consonant letter it may also indicate TRAP, as in arid, apparent, comparison, circularity, Gareth, Gary. The suffix -ary is a special case.

The DRESS-TRAP distinction, as we know, can be a trap in EFL. A Danish friend of mine, now dead, was telling me about an acquaintance whose name I heard as Berry. An unusual name, I thought, but not impossible at least as a surname. It was only years later that I discovered he was really Barry.

The day before yesterday the Sunday Times travel section had an airline cabin attendant recounting how
a very anxious-looking couple boarded a Chicago–Heathrow flight. … They were studying the route maps intensely and staring wildly around the cabin. I asked if everything was all right, and the gentleman said, in a broad Midwestern American accent, ‘Are we all going to perish?’ I thought ‘Oh dear, here we go’, and assured him that we were not, but he just became even more upset, pointing at himself and his wife, then saying ‘We’re going to perish.’ I put my hand on his shoulder and told him in my most soothing voice that there was no way that they or anyone else on the plane was going to perish, but this had the reverse effect. It was only when my supervisor came over that we realised that they were going to Paris, and hadn’t realised they had to change planes at Heathrow.

26 comments:

  1. I have the distinction in full, but I also have TRAP in vary, parent, garish; otherwise, my ars follow the pattern you describe. On investigation, m-w.com gives the same pronunciation for very and vary (though it's not clear what their notation actually means: DRESS or SQUARE?), whereas I make them DRESS and TRAP respectively.

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  2. In the quoted anecdote, what would explain the final-consonant part of the confusion? Does AmE /s/ sometimes sound like [ʃ] to BrE speakers?

    The only exemplar of such a switch/merger I can think of (Sean Connery) is from the other side of the pond, and I'm pretty sure he's idiosyncratic, anyway.

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  3. @dirck:

    Dentures?

    Whatever the reason, John McCain often pronounces /s/ as [S].

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  4. Peep Show has a Canadian character called Mary, and the Englishman Mark (played by David Mitchell, who is interested in language) pronounces her name ˈmeri - curiously imposing upon himself a merger that he doesn't actually have.

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  5. I have a three-way distinction, but while I can say Mary and parent using SQUARE without difficulty when occasion calls for it (that is, for a role in which that would be the norm), I normally use TRAP in those two words. I assume this is a New York City thing, but I don't really know.

    Some AmE speakers use FACE + r in Mary and other such SQUARE-followed-by-r words.

    Confusing s with ʃ might be a result of assumptions made on the basis of the vowel. We process information faster than lightning; one mistake can have a domino effect. Or, as others have said, possibly the guy's teeth didn't fit.

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  6. Come to think of it, I do the same thing with Cary and Gary. But vary is SQUARE. Go know.

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  7. I thought that Danish had a large number of sounds that could be used for the letters a and e. According to Wikipedia [a], [ɑ], [æ], [ɛ], [e] all used in Danish. I wonder why a Dane would struggle with distinguishing Barry and Berry.

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  8. Philadelphia and New York City both maintain a three way distinction, but there are some lexical idiosyncrasies I've noticed. For example, I (being from Philadelphia) study language v[eə]riation and change, whereas my colleagues from NYC dialect areas study language v[æ]riation and change.

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  9. I'm from New York, and I believe I make a three-way distinction, although the marry-Mary distinction may or may not be there; some features seem to come back whenever I'm home. I've always associated the three-way distinction (perhaps erroneously) with speakers from northern New Jersey. My friends from California (where I used to live), however, have no distinction between merry-marry-Mary; they also have the cot-caught merger. Which explains why I don't seem to have a strong accent to native New Yorkers, but why people from California remarked about my pronunciation all the time. Although it's the pronunciation of the sequence written 'or' and pronounced by most Americans as [or] (as in orange, horrible, forest) as [ar] that people seem to notice the most.

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  10. The New Yorker readers here who say they make a distinction aren't alone in North America. Quite a few other locales do this as well.

    http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary-marry-merry_merger

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  11. @ Harry (Hary or Herry): "The New Yorker readers here who say they make a distinction aren't alone in North America. Quite a few other locales do this as well." The vast majority of people in North America do not however.

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  12. As a native Eastern Long Islander (which is politically part of New York), I am also able to distinguish between merry, Mary, and marry, whereas Chicago natives I know cannot. In the comments above, I have not seen any mention of another distinction which seems to be lost on natives of Chicago, which is the ɝ/ɔ distinction, making "worship" and "warship" homonyms. Is that one sufficiently well-known to have been given a name?

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  13. I recently didn't meet a Canadian girl called Tara whom my friends told me rhymed her name with Sarah, rather than with TRAP-vowel Sara.

    I thought this was very odd, until I remembered the connection with Sarah, and I was wondering whether SQUARE-Tara is older than TRAP-Tara? And has the spelling had any affect?

    Perhaps this girl might just have a Marry-Mary merger???

    @Anonymous - Is the Danish equivalent to TRAP much higher than English, even older RP? I have a Danish friend with a terrifically manicured RP accent, but his TREP vowel is way too high, even for, like, 1930s BBC.

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  14. @Des Ryan:

    In England I have only heard START in Tara, Sara and Clara.

    However, out here in California, "Santa Clara" seems to have TRAP/DRESS/SQUARE (all merged).

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  15. Tara is START in Ireland (or is it TRAP? I can barely hear any difference between them), but Sarah is SQUARE.

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  16. @army1987:

    Irish English generally retains the historical situation with START being identical to TRAP plus /r/.

    In England (ttbomk) Sarah has SQUARE but Sara has START.

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  17. In Canadian English 'Tara' frequently has SQUARE, rather than START. But Sara can have either SQUARE or START - my mum's name is 'Sarah' and often has it misspelled as 'Sara', so I'd reckon that many people in Canada don't distinguish in pronunciation between the two.

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  18. oh, and viz to @army1987's comment; in CanEN, Tara may also have TRAP. Sara/Sarah almost never.

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  19. Never realised there was a difference bound to the spellings Sara and Sarah. But ignoring this, the changes from FACE to SQUARE and to chic European START are interesting. Then there's Zara(h).

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  20. Tara and Sarah are exact rhymes in Canadian English. Anyone who says Taaarah is a ponce or an American.

    Also, while I know you kind of mentioned it once or twice, the world does not really divide into en-US vs. en-UK. And you can’t make a plausible argument about en-US speech patterns without considering en-CA speech patterns, since we actually speak a dialect of American English that – especially in cases like these – legitimately varies. (Vary and very are exact rhymes.)

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  21. @Joe Clark:

    ... or a Brit -- but perhaps they are all "ponces" in your eyes?

    I suggest a New Year's resolution to remove the chip from your shoulder.

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  22. Amy Stoller said: Some AmE speakers use FACE + r in Mary and other such SQUARE-followed-by-r words.

    This is also true of many Scottish speakers. I hear this in 'parent' or 'vary'.

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  23. The video you linked isn't working - it says it's private.

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  24. whoops, meant to post that comment on your post about the queen. while i'm here, i can at least confirm as a scottish speaker that I have something approximating FACE in 'Mary', 'parent', etc, and I'm not really sure if I have a difference between FACE and SQUARE apart from the /r/. That said, I try to avoid analysing my own speech if I can help it...

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  25. The answer here is to say the short vowel completely in words like merry, marry, very, berry, Barry, ih-ritate, mirror, etc and to put the r on the second syllable. Mirror is NOT a one syllable word. The Mary, Cary, vary, various sound is a dipthong composed of a wide open mouth saying the sound heard in "let" and moving to a shwa as in the word "there". That is "Standard American Theatre Speech" and considered more elegant than using the same sound. There are confusions all over the country. I am from NY and my friends said Pahrent whilst I for some reason said pearent. Pearent is the standard or more elegant of the pronounciations.

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