IPA phoneme /eə/
In General American there is no phoneme /eə/, because the difference between [eə] and [e] is predictable: between vowels the sound is [e], as in Mary [ˈmeriː], in all other cases it's [eə] as in square [skweər]. This means that Mary and merry are homophones. In the United States and Canada approximately 34% of people distinguish between Mary and merry. See Mary-marry-merry merger.
In Received Pronunciation /eər/ is pronounced /eə/ unless it is followed by a vowel, i.e. the "r" is normally silent unless it is followed by a vowel. In General American the "r" is always pronounced. There are places in the United Kingdom where the "r" is pronounced, and places in North America where it is not pronounced. See Rhotic and non-rhotic accent.
In a narrow notation the correct IPA phonetic notation for /eə/ is [ɛə] or [ɛː] (see [ɛ]). However the very influential Oxford dictionaries selected /eə/ for this phoneme. Most American dictionaries (when using IPA) prefer /ɛ/ or /ɛə/; the first alternative is consistent with the Mary-marry-merry merger. At the advice of Clive Upton the Concise Oxford Dictionary altered the British tradition and now uses /ɛː/; later Oxford Dictionaries Online followed the same convention. This has been referred to as "[a departure] with which one can have a great deal of sympathy", and also "it is surely best to leave EPD14 [Daniel Jones English Pronouncing Dictionary] just as it is".
Some common words which practice the pronunciation of /eə/ include the following:
- At the end of the word
- with "are": aware - bare - care - compare - dare - declare - Delaware - fare - hare - prepare - rare - scare - share - spare - square - stare
- with "air": air - affair - chair - fair - hair - millionaire - pair - repair - stairs
- with "ear": bear - pear - swear - tear (v.) - wear
- other: mayorBrE (US pronunciation is /ˈmeɪər/) - prayer - scarce - there - where
- homophones: air - heir; bear - bare; hair - hare; pear - pair; their - there - they're; there's - theirs; where - wear - ware (as in software).
- heteronyms: tear /teər, tɪər/
- In the middle of the word
- with "ar": area - careful - hilarious - Mary - parent - rarely - Sarah - variation - various - vary
- with "air": dairy - hairy
- with "aer": aerobics - aeroplaneBrE
- with "ear": unbearable
/eər/ vs /eɪər/
/eər/ is one syllable and is pronounced [ɛər], [ɛːr] or [ɛr].
/eɪər/ are two syllables and are pronunced [eɪ.ər].
- Contrast /eər/ vs /eɪər/
- prayer - layer; pair - taxpayer;
- Variant pronunciation
Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1
Preconceived ideas and other interferences from L1 obviously interfere in many cases with how students perceive - and pronounce - sounds/words in English. The following section aims to point out some of the most typical difficulties teachers and students may encounter regarding pronunciation.
For many Spanish speakers /eə/ and /ɜː/ sound very similar. Without practice, they tend not to distinguish between "stir" and "stare" or "were" and "wear".
- Oxford Dictionaries Online, Key to pronunciations (British and World English dictionary). See ɛː as in hair.
- IPA vowel symbols for British English in dictionaries, Section 9. /ɛː/ versus /eə/.
- Pronunciation exercises: /eə/ vs /e/
- Pronunciation exercises: /eə/ vs /ɜː/
- Decoding exercises: "arV" and "arrV"