Mary-marry-merry merger

From Teflpedia

American
dictionaries

ɛ

dress /drɛs/
square /skwɛr/
cherry /ˈtʃɛri/
scary /ˈskɛri/

American
dictionaries

æ

carry /ˈkæri/

MWLD
 

ɛ

dress /drɛs/

MWLD
 

square /skweɚ/

MWLD
 

e

cherry /ˈtʃeri/
scary /ˈskeri/
carry /ˈkeri/

Teflpedia

æ

carry /ˈkæriː/

Teflpedia

e

dress /dres/
cherry /ˈtʃeriː/

Teflpedia

square /skweər/
scary /ˈskeəri/

In most of the United States and Canada /eə/ is merged with /æ/ and with /e/. For 57% of American and Canadian speakers Mary, merry and marry are homophones. In others marry is distinct (9%) and in others merry is distinct (16%).[1][2][3] Outside of North America (and also for 17% of Canadian and Americans) all three phonemes are distinct.[4]

Since there is no distinction between /e/ and /eə/ it can be said that in American English there is no phoneme /eə/, only /e/. However the diphtong [ɛə] is heard when a syllable ends with /r/, as in square [skwɛər]. Phoneticians say that /e/ followed by /r/ at the end of the syllable is realized as [ɛə]. In other words, broad notation is /er/ and narrow notation is [ɛər].

Most American dictionaries write marry as /ˈmæri/ because it's easy to go from /ˈmæri/ to [mɛri], but it would be impossible to know if [ˈmɛri] stands for /ˈmæri/ or /ˈmeri/ in those places that make the difference (26% of North Americans).

Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary (MWLD) uses three symbols (narrow notation). /ɛ/ for "dress", /e/ for "scary", "carry" and "cherry", and /eɚ/ for "square".

marry Mary mare merry % Alternative name
/æ/ [æ] /eə/ [ɛə] /eə/ [ɛə] /e/ [ɛ] 17 Three-way contrast
/æ/ [æ] /e/ [ɛ] /e/ [ɛə] /e/ [ɛ]  9 Mary–merry merger only
/eə/ [ɛə] /eə/ [ɛə] /eə/ [ɛə] /e/ [ɛ] 16 Mary–marry merger only
/e/ [ɛ] /eə/ [ɛə] /eə/ [ɛə] /e/ [ɛ]  1 Merry-marry merger only
/e/ [ɛ] /e/ [ɛ] /e/ [ɛə] /e/ [ɛ] 57 Three-way merger

Homophones or minimal pairs[edit]

The following words are homophones in some accents and minimal pairs in others

  • /eə, æ, e/: Mary - marry - merry;
  • /eə, æ/: hairy - Harry;
  • /eə, e/: airer - error; fairy - ferry; vary - very;
  • /æ, e/: Aaron - Erin; barrel - beryl; Barry - berry, bury; parish - perish;

References[edit]

  1. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Harvard Dialect Survey (2003), Dialect Survey Results. 15. How do you pronounce Mary/merry/marry?
  2. Wikipedia, Mary-marry-merry merger.
  3. Pronuncian.com, 123: A Merry, Marry, Mary Christmas, December 23, 2010.
  4. John Wells, merry Mary and hairy Harry, 28 December 2010.

See also[edit]