Mary, merry, marry

This was a fascinating article. I was surprised to see that, according to this, Massachusetts, Long Island, and New Jersey are the only places that pronounce Mary, merry, and marry differently.


June 8, 2013 6:12 PM

Oh! I think that this article is referring to this study (all 122 questions are included).

I believe it! I love New Yorkers and New Jerseyans? (ites?) because they're basically the only other people in NA besides Quebecers who say my name the way I do!

June 9, 2013 11:05 AM

Yes! I was having fun with that the other day! Oh--and if you go to each question, above the map, you can click on "individual" which will give you multiple maps showing each answer's prevalence. I found that more helpful in the ability to see what really was going on. :-)

The one I liked best was, "What do you call the little gray creature (that looks like an insect but is actually a crustacean) that rolls up into a ball when you touch it?"

I've heard many of the choices (and fit into my area's usage mostly), but my mom was always very specific about them. They are "sowbug" or woodlice to her.  I mostly called them sowbugs until my friends all called them potato bugs, so I switched over to that to be understood by others. :-)

June 8, 2013 7:07 PM

I saw that a few days ago and I was surprised by that as well.  It seems like on this site we have several who are not Mary/marry/merry merged, so I thought it must be more prevalent. I've never heard a non-merged person pronounce them all for me to hear yet. For me, they're all the same.

June 8, 2013 7:59 PM

I saw that site, and I had some problems with it.  For example, the maps don't indicate the very specific New Orleans pronunciations and usages that are often very distinct from those of surrounding areas.  So I would only take it in very general terms.

I grew up in SE PA, and I am not at all merged.  I pronounce Mary to rhyme with hairy and fairy.  I pronounce merry to rhyme with ferry, that is with 'eh' as in get as the vowel.  I pronounce marry with the vowel in at.  The three sounds are entirely distinct.  I also do not merge cot and caught.  Cot has the vowel in father and caught the vowel in jaw.  I do merge horse and hoarse.  And I pronounce Karyn with the vowel in at, not the vowel in air, unless I am told otherwise, and then I would still probably use the vowel in at since that is so habitual.  And I do not get all the Harry-hairy puns.  To me there is nothing to snicker at about a man named Harry Ball.

June 9, 2013 8:22 AM

I remember taking a long walk on the first night of college with a girl named Sharon who was from the southern part of Pennsylvania. She was very frustrated because no one she had met so far could pronounce her name properly. I could hear the difference between the way she said it and the way I said her, but could not reproduce the sound without sounding ridiculous. Several days later she gave up completely and just accepted that her name was pronounced incorrectly by almost every person on campus.

June 9, 2013 9:22 PM

Was she from SE or SW PA?  SWPA has a very distinct accent (sometimes called "Pittsburghese", although it's actually a varation of Appalachian). There are some super weird vowels around here (I live in Pittsburgh). 

June 10, 2013 4:31 PM

Unfortunately I don't remember! York, maybe?

June 18, 2013 5:56 PM

To my ears, fairy and ferry have identical pronunciations. As do Mary/merry/marry and Harry/hairy and berry/Barry (all of these rhyme to me). I don't think I've even noticed anyone pronounce them differently. Though, caught/cot and Dawn/Don are VERY different to me. (I am originally from Wisconsin.)

June 9, 2013 1:04 AM

Hmm, looking at the link to the full survey posted in the first comment, I think part of the problem is interpretation of the graph(ic)s: the maps show the most likely answer for each location, with darker shades for higher probabilities. This means that there are people who aren't Mary-marry-merry merged in a lot of places, but the only places where they predominate are Massachusetts, Long Island, and New Jersey.

June 9, 2013 11:38 AM

I still question that. In the SE PA/Philadelphia area no one had the merry/marry/Mary merge. I never heard of it until I started to move around the country after I got my PhD and began teaching history of the English language. Pronunciations and word choices often differ by generation, and while it's a long time since I left home, I did move back to suburban Philadelphia briefly a few years ago, and I still didn't hear the merge. Now my old hometown has had a huge demographic shift. It was overwhelmingly PA Dutch and is now overwhelmingly Hispanic, so I don't know how people speak there now, but back in the day no merge.

June 9, 2013 12:59 PM

I live in SE PA now, but I'm not the right person to ask about merry/marry/Mary: I suppose if someone were carefully enunciating and I was specifically paying attention, I could maybe tell the difference (I have all three vowels in other contexts, after all), but I'm fully merged (grew up in southern California, plus we spoke Hungarian at home, which I've noticed has caused me to simplify English vowels considerably), and I'm horrible at noticing sounds and accents. I think maybe the map/survey in question reflects the fact that Americans move around a lot -- I can think of exactly one person in our entire circle of friends and acquaintances who is originally from this area, and even she lived elsewhere for several decades before coming back. Come to think of it, I should ask whether she merges those words...

June 9, 2013 4:39 PM

Are you sure we're really "fully merged"? I can't even imagine a pronunciation difference between "Mary" and "marry", but I'm pretty sure my "merry" is different. It's like the difference between "Barry" and "berry".

June 10, 2013 11:59 AM

Many, many, many people don't differentiate between Barry and berry. There is a town in Ontario called Barry that for years I thought was spelled Berry because I only really heard Ontarians talk about it.

June 10, 2013 1:21 PM

Yes!  An American student (not sure from which part, sorry to generalise again!) a while ago asked me about an author called Barry - it took a couple of minutes of fruitless searching before we worked out they were actually called Berry.

June 9, 2013 6:20 AM

Thanks!  Very interesting to look at, even with the caveats.

June 9, 2013 2:16 PM

Ok so I'm s.c. PA and I have a slight merge? Mary/Merry sound the same to me.  I have my kids saying sentences out loud lol. But Marry is different.  So question is what is the different pronunciations for Mary/Merry

June 9, 2013 3:54 PM

Mary has the vowel in air. Say mare (female horse) and add -ee. Merry has the vowel in get. Say meh (as in "whatever") and add -ree.