Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mary, merry, and marry

For many speakers, including myself, "Mary", "merry", and "marry" are homonyms: meɹi. For other speakers, including my father, there is a threeway difference reflecting the underlying forms: me(j)ɹi, 'Mary', mɛɹi, 'merry', mæɹi, 'marry'. Generally, the distinctive forms belong to non-rhotic dialects, and the neutralized forms to rhotic dialects. This is because in rhotic dialects, intervocalic resonants tend to be ambisyllabic, i.e., they are attached both to the syllable that precedes them (as a coda) and the syllable that follows them (as an onset). An /r/ in coda position tends to neutralize many if not all vowel quality distinctions in the syllable it closes, and thus in rhotic dialects, where these syllables are closed by an /r/, we get all three front vowels neutralized to the [-hi][-lo][+ATR] vowel /e/. For non-rhotic speakers, /r/ can never be in coda position, and thus this neutralization does not occur.

Because of this, rhotic speakers tend not to be able to identify which form is which, even on hearing them produced by non-rhotic speakers (or rhotic speakers who happened to have picked up the distinction in careful speech). I occupy some sort of no man's land in between, since I understand the distinction, and can produce it, but I never use it in normal speech. I probably inherited this from my father, who, while a rhotic speaker, comes from family in New York, and probably heard many non-rhotic speakers (in addition to being a careful and conservative speaker himself). I recently encountered this difficulty on two fronts.

The first was in the TV show "Frasier". The character Niles, a rhotic but very careful speaker, played by David Hyde Pierce, also a rhotic speaker is discussing some former patients with commitment issues who overcame their disorder and were getting mɛɹid, which for a non-rhotic speaker would be "merried". This error seems a bit odd to me, since Pierce was born and raised in New York, was a camp counselour in New Hampshire, and went to school in Connecticut, so he surely was exposed to non-rhotic accents throughout his life. However, if he never acquired the distinction, it would be exceedingly difficult for him to recreate it. Though he didn't make the distinction, he knew that Niles likely would, and thus made a guess at one of the forms.

The second was my wife Amanda, discussing a coworker, with a New Jersey accent, who wished her a mæɹi Christmas. What the coworker actually said was almost certainly mɛɹi, but to a rhotic speaker like Amanda there is little, if any, perceivable difference between to two.

15 comments:

Robert Morris said...

Much to my horror, the professor in my first-ever phonetics course was a rhotic speaker (like me) but had this three-way distinction (unlike me).

I can produce the disctinction (though the "e" versuse "epsilon" one I really have to strain to make), but doing so makes me sound distinctively grandma-esque or not-from-here (I'm from the midwest US) to my ears.

Ben said...

As a native speaker of British English, these 3 words are very different to me. I'm not 100% on the IPA but I think it's the same as your father's pronunciation.
I think this is standard British English and most Brits would pronounce it this way.

vp said...

The merger us only found in North Anerican rhotic dialects. Other rhotic accents ( eg in Scotland or Ireland ) have not undergone the merger.

linguistlessons said...

The last two commenters are quite right; I should have stated that the merger is an American thing.

Jeff said...

I'm from northern New Jersey, I pronounce all my r's, and I pronounce these three words differently. My parents were from NYC and Long Island, if that means anything. *shrug*

Alex Case said...

"is an American thing"

That seems to contradict your explanation for why it happens- which is a shame, because it was a very neat one!

Robert Morris said...

I should mention that my professor was also American.

Anonymous said...

Mary, Merry, and Marry are all pronounced differently. If someone pronounces them the same, that's not a dialect, that's being inarticulate.

Michael said...

Not all rhotic accents in the United States have this merger, however. It's most common in the Midwest.

Anthony said...

All of my friends, especially my friends from the midwest and the west coast, constantly make fun of me for my strong New York accent. They pretend they can't understand me sometimes, but I always tell them that their speech is actually more confusing than mine. I never realized I say these three words differently, but I do. How interesting.

UrbanVagabond said...

Interesting, Ryan ... my mother is from New York and has the three-way distinction with rhotic /r/. For me, "marry" and "Mary" are the same /meri/, but "merry" is (slightly) different /mɛri/. The vowel /e/ in /meri/ is not at all diphthongized and significantly lower than canonical /e/, but still higher than /ɛ/. For me, people who merge all three use my /e/ not /ɛ/ sound. E.g. I remember once hearing a teacher speaking about a friend named "Barrel" and it took a few minutes before I realized this was actually "Beryl".

Unknown said...

Yep, just had this discussion with my boyfriend. He is an American, I am Russian, who studied British English in school. To me all three words are different, to him - all the same.

Ryan Denzer-King said...

#15 here is relevant: http://spark-1590165977.us-west-2.elb.amazonaws.com/jkatz/SurveyMaps/

Anonymous said...

"If someone pronounces them the same, that's not a dialect, that's being inarticulate."

Given that 1. the merger is well-documented by linguists and 2. it's done by over half of Americans (with even more pronouncing either merry or marry the same as Mary), I don't think that's a defensible position.

Anonymous said...

"If someone pronounces them the same, that's not a dialect, that's being inarticulate."

Given that 1. the merger is well-documented by linguists and 2. it's done by over half of Americans (with even more pronouncing either merry or marry like Mary), I don't think that's a defensible position.