More About Merged Names and Words

I like this topic, even if I am hopelessly merged in many sounds.

I think I can tell the difference between merry and Mary/marry simply because they obviously have two different vowels. Does the extra "r" in marry make the different sound from Mary - or is the vowel "a" an actual different sound. For instance Lily and Lilly wouldn't be two different sounding names would it?

I know that someone with the name Kari on one of these posts spoke of her name being totally different than Carrie - again - is there a different vowel sound or does the double "r" make the difference?

I started thinking about this subject while watching the news and John Kerry's name came up several times. I think that I still hear Carrie instead of Kerry from some journalists (people who should be especially educated on this topic).

Then, I started thinking about the word bury. This has yet another vowel I haven't seen dicussed before when the Mary/marry/merry/Carrie/Kerry topic comes up. Is this another sound?

Anyway, I think I know how to say the secretary of state's name and Merry Christmas properly, but nine times out of ten, I probably hear and say Carrie and Mary instead.

I will never understand how the "o" in top and dog are different.

Maybe it was my education in grade school. There were the "big" or "long" vowels and the "small" or "short" vowels. I remember being taught that the "t" in often is silent - which is how I still say it a lot of the time, but no one else does. Also I was taught that there is no comma before "and" - as in you, me, and her. I do and have used the comma for a long time now. But is it possible that some of us older folks didn't get that first elementary education given now, or have the rules changed? BTW - I do have some higher education, both on the job and formal - that's how I know about the extra comma - also when I first learned to type, you made two spaces after a sentence instead of one. I still do this a lot. When it's really important, I have to use the function on Word or whatever to see the spaces. I know I got off topic, but the education thing regarding the sounds struck me and then education on a broader level.

FWIW - I have tried to listen to some of the links about these sounds - doesn't seem to help. Plus my poor old computer doesn't do video very well. Maybe I will have a "Mary" Christmas this year and Santa will bring me a new one :)


By EVie
April 27, 2014 5:19 PM

I'm not sure that spellings and pronunciation really correlate all that well for the Mary/marry/merry unmerged. I would say that usually the double R signals a difference in the vowel--marry, Carrie, tarry, Larry, Barry, Harry, parry are all pronounced one way, which is different from Mary. But sometimes single-R words are also pronounced that way--Gary is like marry, not Mary, for example, but wary and nary are both like Mary. The names Sari and Mari for me are also like marry, but the word "sari" as in the Indian garment is with an entirely different a (like in "father"). The words spelled with e, though, are usually the same: merry/ferry/Kerry/very/Perry/berry. Bury is pronounced the same as berry. Words spelled with -ea- like bear/pear/wear/tear are usually like Mary.

Regarding the other issues that you mentioned--I was also taught that the t in often is silent, but I think the other pronunciation is so widespread now that it's considered also acceptable. The comma you're referring to is known as the "Oxford comma," and I think it's back in style now. I like it, as I find it improves clarity, especially when the word "and" is used multiple times in the sentence. The extra space after the period, however, is no longer considered correct. That is a relic from the days of typewriters, when all letters were the same width and so it helped clarify where one sentence ended and the other began. These days, though, word processing software automatically adjusts the size of the letters and spaces, so adding an extra space is redundant and just creates ugly white blocks in the text.

April 27, 2014 6:15 PM

A lot of (mostly older) Philadelphia speakers say bury like Murray and also say Murray Christmas.

April 27, 2014 6:08 PM

Never understood how the three "Mary" sounds are different,

and so I say them all as Mary.

With Carrie and Kerry, the "e" is the slightest bit longer than the "a". But if I say them out loud, as in talking to my friend Kerry, I pronounce his name just the same as Carrie. 

Top and dog aren't supposed to sound the same?...I am also gullty of saying "of-ten". Just doesn't make sense for me to say it differently, LOL.

My comma use is always x, y, and z. It seems "off" if I don't put it there.

April 27, 2014 6:24 PM

top=the vowel in father

dog=the vowel in law

These two vowels alternate all the way down the Atlantic coast of the US and around the Gulf coast.  I can generally tell where someone is from by which of these two vowels shows up in which words.

For example, I am from Berks County PA, and I have cawfee for coffee and sawsage for sausage, while my forner husband is from suburban Philadelphia, and he has sahsage and cahfee.  We both have chahcolate (for chocolate), while in NYC, about 100 or so miles away it's chawclit.  For John, I say Jahn.  In New Orleans, it's Jawn.  For darling, I say Dahrling, while in New Orleans it's dawlin.  I have gotten a lot of stick because I say Bawston (for Boston) and cawst for cost.   And so it goes.


April 27, 2014 10:45 PM

Miriam, any chance you could give the IPA transcriptions for all these various vowels? I ask because I can't tell a difference between the vowels in father and law, so telling me that top is like one of them and dog is like the other leaves me right back where I started, in the land of the perplexed...

(I just found out that my favorite site for the IPA in audio format has gone the way of all things. Wikipedia has a version for the vowels here:

April 28, 2014 11:13 AM

Really? The backwards-c vowel is firmly in the "o" category for me, but "law" does NOT sound like "low"! I suppose part of it is that the person saying the vowels for the recordings is only human, and it's Really Hard to produce a specific sound in isolation like that...

Your identification of the "ah" vowel is odd to me, too, because [a] is clearly Hungarian á, which is definitely NOT found in either "top" or "dog"... (People have used "like the a in father" for so many different vowels that I don't actually know how to pronounce "father" any more.)

April 28, 2014 1:23 AM

Thanks for the clarification, Miriam. :) Gotta love the dialects. ;)

April 28, 2014 11:05 PM

My mother is from New Jersey, and she simply cannot stop mocking her children for some of these vowel changes -- we don't have all of the Western PA vowels, but we have enough of them to drive her straight to Pronunciation Mockville.

April 28, 2014 11:34 AM

A lot of this really is just a question of accents and where you grow up. I'm originally Californian, and I've been told my accent has changed over the years. But I'm still solidly merged with Mary/merry/marry/Carrie/Kerry/carry/wary/Gary/scary etc. I'm also cot/caught merged, Don/Dawn merged, top/dog/father/law/gone etc. merged, all that. The NY/NJ "aw" sound (which sounds like an "oh-ah" diphthong in my ears) doesn't exist in my vowel set at all.

My "sure" rhymes with "lure" most of the time, but occasionally it comes out as rhyming with "her". The t in "often" is silent. 

By mk
April 28, 2014 12:34 PM

A lot of it is more about regional accents rather than how to say particular letter combinations.

And a person's accent can change. I definitely say certain words differently now than as a child because I live in a different area and have picked up the local accent.

There are some great maps online showing regional differences.

The serial, or "Oxford", comma is preferred/not preferred depeding on the particular style guide begin used, I think.

May 12, 2014 2:26 AM

I grew up with a lot of vowel mergers. For example, I say "caught" and "cot" the same. It's not that I just say them the same - I actually have a hard time hearing the difference, because my brain is not trained to distinguish the two vowels. Someone's pronunciation is not only due to education, it's just an accent.

May 12, 2014 2:03 PM

As others commented, this is much more about dialect than education.  I majored in linguistics and still have trouble distinguishing between vowels my native dialect doesn't recognize differences between.  I can hear the difference between cot and caught if I pay close attention, but I suspect I only pronounce them differently when making a concerted effort.  An Aaron once thanked me for pronouncing his name correctly (not like Erin) but I still can't do it on command. 

With some vowels, the consonants following them do affect the sound, such as the a in cat versus can.  Physically, it would be difficult not to nasalize the vowel before a nasal consonant. Or maybe it isn't physically difficult, but just an English phonetic rule and other languages handle it differently. (Phonetics was a fascinating, but far from easy course!) At any rate, neighboring sounds have a huge impact on one another.  Whether it's a double consonant may also have a relationship with the sound of the vowel, but because the English language has adopted words from so many other languages and spelling is often (silent t for me!) divorced from pronunciation, there is no hard and fast rule, like there would be in, say, Italian, where a double consonant means it is pronounced different from a single consonant.  

The Oxford/serial comma and number of spaces after a period (or colon) are simply taught differently depending on how the elementary school teacher learned.  Believe it or not, even the Oxford style guide has dropped the serial comma where it wouldn't assist in clarification of meaning.  As a fan of the serial comma, it makes me sad. 

May 12, 2014 6:21 PM

So, I was reading posts as a thunderstorm hit. My step-son came in and I heard myself say "I think I heard hell, is it hellin' out there?" Then I thought maybe it's the other way around and I tell people to go to hail.