123: A Merry, Marry, Mary Christmas

A tri-sound merger explained for the Holidays.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 123rd episode.

(Song excerpt) That was very end of The Bird and the Bee's rendition of Carol of the Bells. While the context of the song tells us that they were singing Merry Christmas (merry spelled m-e-r-r-y), without that context, I would not know for certain if they were saying merry, m-e-r-r-y, marry, m-a-r-r-y, or Mary, M-a-r-y. This is a perfect time of year to talk about the merry-marry-mary merger.

I'm one of the 57% of Americans who pronounce the words merry, marry, and Mary the same. When two sounds that were, at one time, pronounced differently, start being pronounced the same, we say a merger has occurred.

Probably the most well-known American English pronunciation merger is the cot-caught merger, where the words cot, c-o-t, and caught, c-a-u-g-h-t, are pronounced the same. Since only about 40% of Americans have merged these sounds, we still treat them as separate sounds on Pronuncian.

As I said earlier, about 57% of Americans pronounce merry, marry, and Mary the same, using the same r-controlled vowel. On Pronuncian, we call this sound the air sound, and we use the IPA symbol of the combination of the short e symbol plus the r sound symbol. We call it the air sound because, while it is pronounced more like a short e followed by an r sound, it is often spelled like a long a.

There is so much that can be confusing about the air sound and the merry-marry-Mary merger that it's difficult to even know where to start. First, this merger is most widespread in rhotic accents. Rhotic means that the r sound is pronounced when it occurs before a consonant sound. Standard American English is rhotic, while many accents of the East Coast, including Boston and New York, are non-rhotic. Received Pronunciation of England is also a very well-known non-rhotic accent. So, the first part of the complication is that it is mostly just the rhotic accents that have merged the sounds.

Another confusing aspect of this merger is that many individuals have merged two of the three sounds, but not all three. For instance, if I use the linguistics department map created by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a reference, almost 57% of Americans merge all three sounds, 16% merge M-a-r-y and m-a-r-r-y, and 9% merge M-a-r-y and m-e-r-r-y. Only 1% merge m-e-r-r-y and m-a-r-r-y with each other but not with M-a-r-y. After all of that, we still have the 17% of individuals who pronounce all three differently. Not surprisingly, most of those people are on the East Coast and in areas with non-rhotic accents.

Finally, the dictionaries seem to be just as varied as individual speakers. It isn't hard to find one dictionary that has merged two of the three sounds some of the time but not all of the time, and a different dictionary that has merged a different two of the three. The second edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary at least shows merry, marry, and Mary merged in their American English pronunciation.

As learners, you have choices to make. Do you want to learn the sounds in a merged form, or separately? It really is a personal choice, just as choosing to learn an American accent, or a British accent, or any other of the many choices you have is personal. My goal is to make you more aware of your options!

If you want to hear Walter Matthau say, "Merry Christmas," I'd recommend choosing Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas as your free audiobook with your 14-day Audible trial. I've talked before about the fact that Dr. Seuss is an American cultural icon, and being familiar with his very popular children's books is well worth your time. You get to keep the audiobook even if you cancel your subscription before your free trial is over. Go to www.pronuncian.com/audible for more information.

I want to send a special thanks to our English Assembly forums users Vadie and Anton who both linked to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee linguistics maps I referred to. I'll also include a link to the maps of the merry, marry, Mary merger along with the transcripts for this show. All of our transcripts can be found at www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Happy Holidays everyone, and thanks for listening.