English-language vowel changes before historic /r/ Redirected from Mary–marry–merry merger

In English, many vowel shifts affect only vowels followed by /r/ in rhotic dialects, or vowels that were historically followed by an /r/ that has since been elided in non-rhotic dialects. Most of them involve merging of vowel distinctions, so that fewer vowel phonemes occur before /r/ than in other positions in a word.


In rhotic dialects, /r/ is pronounced in most cases. In General American English (GA), /r/ is pronounced as an approximant [ɹ] or [ɻ] in most positions, but after some vowels is pronounced as r-coloring. In Scottish English, /r/ is traditionally pronounced as a flap [ɾ] or trill [r], and there are no r-colored vowels.

In non-rhotic dialects like Received Pronunciation (RP), historic /r/ is elided at the end of a syllable, and if the preceding vowel is stressed, it undergoes compensatory lengthening or breaking (diphthongization). Thus, words that historically had /r/ often have long vowels or centering diphthongs ending in a schwa /ə/, or a diphthong followed by a schwa.

  • earth: GA [ɝθ], RP [ɜːθ]
  • here: GA [ˈhɪɚ], RP [ˈhɪə]
  • fire: GA [ˈfaɪɚ], RP [ˈfaɪə]

In most English dialects, there are vowel shifts that affect only vowels before /r/, or vowels that were historically followed by /r/. Vowel shifts before historical /r/ fall into two categories: mergers and splits. Mergers are more common, and therefore most English dialects have fewer vowel distinctions before historical /r/ than in other positions in a word.

In many North American dialects, there are ten or eleven stressed monophthongs; only five or six vowel (rarely, seven) contrasts are possible before a preconsonantal and word-final /r/ (beer, bear, burr, bar, bore, bor, boor). Often, more contrasts exist when /r/ appears between vowels is not in the same syllable; in some American dialects and in most native English dialects outside North America, for example, mirror and nearer do not rhyme, and some or all of marry, merry and Mary are pronounced distinctly. (In North America, these distinctions are most likely to occur in New York City, Philadelphia, some of Eastern New England (for some, including Boston), and in conservative Southern accents.) In many dialects, however, the number of contrasts in this position tends to be reduced, and the tendency seems to be towards further reduction. The difference in how these reductions have been manifested represents one of the greatest sources of cross-dialect variation.

Non-rhotic accents in many cases show mergers in the same positions as rhotic accents do, even though there is often no /r/ phoneme present. This results partly from mergers that occurred before the /r/ was lost, and partly from later mergers of the centering diphthongs and long vowels that resulted from the loss of /r/.

The phenomenon that occurs in many dialects of the United States is one of tense–lax neutralization,[1] where the normal English distinction between tense and lax vowels is eliminated.

In some cases, the quality of a vowel before /r/ is different from the quality of the vowel elsewhere. For example, in some dialects of American English the quality of the vowel in more typically does not occur except before /r/, and is somewhere in between the vowels of maw and mow. It is similar to the vowel of the latter word, but without the glide.

It is important to note however that different mergers occur in different dialects. Among United States accents, the Boston, Eastern New England and New York accents have the lowest degree of pre-rhotic merging. Some have observed that rhotic North American accents are more likely to have such merging than non-rhotic accents, but this cannot be said of rhotic British accents like Scottish English, which is firmly rhotic and yet many varieties have all the same vowel contrasts before /r/ as before any other consonant.

Mergers before intervocalic R

Most North American English dialects merge the lax vowels with the tense vowels before /r/ and so "marry" and "merry" then have the same vowel as "mare", "mirror" has the same vowel as "mere", "forest" has the same vowel as the stressed form of "for" and "hurry" has the same vowel as "stir". The mergers are typically resisted by non-rhotic North Americans and are largely absent in areas of the United States that are historically largely nonrhotic.

Hurryfurry merger

The hurryfurry merger occurs when the vowel /ʌ/ before intervocalic /r/ is merged with /ɜ/, particularly a feature in most dialects of North American English, but it is resisted in New York City English, Mid-Atlantic American English, older Southern American English, and some speakers of Eastern New England English.[2][clarification needed] Speakers with the merger pronounce hurry so it rhymes with furry, and turret so it rhymes with stir it.

British English and most other English outside North America maintain the distinction between both sounds and so in their dialects, hurry and furry do not rhyme.[2] However, in dialects without the foot-strut split, hurry has an entirely different vowel: /ˈhʊri/.

General American has a three-way merger between the first vowels in hurry and furry as well as the unstressed vowel in letters. In Received Pronunciation, all of them have different sounds (/ʌ/, /ɜː/ and /ə/, respectively), and there exist some minimal pairs between unstressed /ɜː/ and /ə/, such as foreword /ˈfɔːwɜːd/ vs. forward /ˈfɔːwəd/. In GA, they collapse to [ˈfɔrwɚd], but in phonemic transcription, they can still be differentiated as /ˈfɔrwɜrd/ and /ˈfɔrwərd/ to facilitate comparisons with other accents. Furthermore, GA often lacks a proper opposition between /ʌ/ and /ə/, which makes minimal pairs such as unorthodoxy and an orthodoxy variably homophonous as /ənˈɔrθədɑksi/.[3] See strut–comma merger for more information.

In New Zealand English, there is a consistent contrast between hurry and furry, but the unstressed /ə/ is lengthened to /ɜː/ (phonetically [ɵː]) in many positions (particularly in formal or slow speech), especially when it is spelled ⟨er⟩. Thus, boarded and bordered might be distinguished as /ˈbɔːdəd/ and /ˈbɔːdɜːd/ (homophonous in Australia as /ˈbɔːdəd/ and distinguished in RP as /ˈbɔːdɪd/ and /ˈbɔːdəd/), based on length and rounding of /ɜː/. The shift was caused by a complete phonemic merger of /ɪ/ and /ə/, a weak vowel merger that was generalized to all environments.[4]

Homophonous pairs
/ʌr/ /ɜr/ IPA
furrier (n.) furrier (adj.) /ˈfɜriər/

Marymarrymerry merger

One notable merger of vowels before /r/ is the Marymarrymerry merger,[5] which consists of a merging of the vowels /æ/ (as in the name Carrie or the word marry) and /ɛ/ (as in Kerry or merry) with historical /eɪ/ (as in Cary or Mary) whenever they are realised before intervocalic /r/. No contrast exist before a final or preconsonantal /r/.[6] The merger is fairly widespread, and it is complete or nearly complete in most varieties of North American English,[sample 1] but rare in other varieties of English. The following variants are common in North America:

  • The full Marymarrymerry merger (also known, in context, as the three-way merger): This is found throughout much of the United States (particularly the American West) and in all of Canada except Montreal. This is found in about 57% of American English speakers, according to a 2003 dialect survey.[7]
  • No merger whatsoever (also known as the three-way contrast): A lack of this merger in North America exists primarily in the Northeastern United States and is most clearly documented in the accents of Philadelphia, New York City, and Rhode Island. 17% of Americans have no merger.[8][sample 2] In the Philadelphia accent, the three-way contrast is preserved, but merry tends to be merged with Murray, and ferry can likewise be a homophone of furry (see merryMurray merger below). The three-way contrast is found in about 17% of U.S. English speakers overall.[7]
  • Marymarry merger only: This is found in only about 16% of American English speakers overall, particularly in the Northeast.[7]
  • Marymerry merger only: This is found among Anglophones in Montreal and in the American South, in about 9% of American English speakers overall, particularly in the East.[7][9]
  • merry–marry merger only: This merger is rare and is found in only about 1% of American English speakers.

The three are kept distinct outside of North America. In accents that do not have the merger, Mary has the a sound of mare, marry has the "short a" sound of mat, and merry has the "short e" sound of met. In modern RP, they are pronounced as [ˈmɛːɹi], [ˈmaɹi], and [ˈmɛɹi]; in Australian English as [ˈmeːɹi], [ˈmæɹi], and [ˈmeɹi]; in New York City English as [ˈmeɹi⁓ˈmɛəɹi], [ˈmæɹi], and [ˈmɛɹi]; in Philadelphia English, the same as New York, except merry is [ˈmɛɹi⁓ˈmʌɹi]. There is plenty of variance in the distribution of the merger, with expatriate communities of those speakers being formed all over the country.

The Marymerry merger is possible in New Zealand English in which the quality of the merged vowel is [] (similar to KIT in General American). However, in New Zealand, the vowel in Mary often merges with the NEAR vowel /iə/ instead (see near–square merger), which before intervocalic /r/ may then merge with /iː/ and so Mary (phonemically /ˈmeəɹi/) can be [ˈmiəɹi] or [ˈmiːɹi] instead. In all of those cases, there is a clear distinction between Mary and merry (regardless of how they are pronounced) and marry /ˈmɛri/ (with the TRAP vowel) on the other.[10]

Homophonous pairs
/eɪr/ /ær/ /ɛr/ IPA Notes
Aaron1 Aaron2 Erin ˈɛrən with weak-vowel merger
airable arable errable ˈɛrəbəl
airer - error ˈɛrə(r)
- barrel beryl ˈbɛrəl with weak-vowel merger before /l/
- Barry berry ˈbɛri
- Barry bury ˈbɛri
Cary1 Carrie Kerry ˈkɛri
Cary1 carry Kerry ˈkɛri
Cary1 Cary2 Kerry ˈkɛri
dairy - Derry ˈdɛri
fairy - ferry ˈfɛri
- Farrell feral ˈfɛrəl with weak-vowel merger before /l/
Gary1 Gary2 - ˈɡɛri
hairy Harry - ˈhɛri
Mary marry merry ˈmɛri
- parish perish ˈpɛrɪʃ
- parry Perry ˈpɛri
scary - skerry ˈskɛri
Tara - Terra ˈtɛrə
Tara - terror ˈtɛrə non-rhotic
- tarry Terry ˈtɛri
vary - very ˈvɛri

MerryMurray merger

The merryMurray merger (sometimes called the ferryfurry merger although the latter name is accurate only for speakers who also have the hurryfurry merger) is a merger of /ɛ/ and /ʌ/ before /r/ (both neutralized with syllabic r) that is common in the Philadelphia accent,[11] which does not usually have the marrymerry merger: "short a" /æ/ as in marry is a distinct unmerged class before /r/. Thus, merry and Murray are pronounced the same, but marry is pronounced differently.

Homophonous pairs
/ɛr/ /ʌr/ IPA Notes
Kerry curry ˈkʌri
merry Murray ˈmʌri
skerry scurry ˈskʌri

Mirrornearer merger

Another widespread merger is the mirrornearer merger or Siriusserious merger of /ɪ/ with /i/ before intervocalic /r/ (in other words, the sound "r" when between vowels). The typical result of the merger in General American is [ɪr] or [ɪ̝r].[12] For speakers with this merger, common in general accents throughout North America, mirror and nearer rhyme, and Sirius is homophonous with serious. North Americans who do not merge the vowels often speak the more conservative northeastern or southern accents.

Mergers of /ɒr/ and /ɔr/

Words that would have a stressed /ɒ/ before intervocalic /r/ in Received Pronunciation are treated differently in different varieties of North American English. As shown in the table below, in Canadian English, all of these are pronounced with [-ɔr-], as in cord. In the accents of Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, and the Carolinas (and traditionally throughout the South), the words are pronounced among some with [-ɑr-], as in card (and thus merge with historic prevocalic /ɑr/ in words like starry). In New York City, Long Island, and the nearby parts New Jersey, the words are pronounced with [ɒr], like in RP. However, it is met with hypercorrection of /ɑr/, (thus still merging with historic prevocalic /ɑr/ in starry).[13] On the other hand, the traditional Eastern New England accents (famously the Rhode Island and Boston accents), the words are pronounced with [-ɒr-], but [ɒ] is a free vowel (the outcome of the cot–caught merger) and in that regard, it is the same as Canadian /ɒ/, rather than RP /ɒ/. Most of the rest of the United States (marked "General American" in the table), however, has a distinctive mixed system. Most words are pronounced as in Canada, the four (sometimes five) words in the left-hand column are typically pronounced with [-ɑr-];,[14] and the East Coast regions are apparently slowly moving toward that system.[citation needed]

In accents with the horse–hoarse merger, /ɔr/ also includes the historic /oʊr/ in words such as glory and force. When an accent also features the cot–caught merger, /ɔr/ is typically analyzed as /oʊr/ to avoid postulating a separate /ɔ/ phoneme that occurs only before /r/ and so both cord and glory are considered to contain the /oʊ/ phoneme in California, Canada and elsewhere. Therefore, in accents with the horse–hoarse merger, /kɔrd/ and /koʊrd/ are different analyses of the same word cord, and there may be little to no difference in the realization of the vowel.

Distribution of /ɒr/ and prevocalic /ɔːr/ by dialect
Some New England, NYC,
Mid-Atlantic, Southern American
Only borrow, sorry, sorrow, (to)morrow /ɒr/ /ɑːr/ /ɒr/ or /ɑːr/ /ɔːr/
Forest, Florida, historic, moral, orange, etc. /ɔːr/
Forum, memorial, oral, storage, story, etc. /ɔːr/ /ɔːr/

Even in the American East Coast without the split (Boston, New York City, Rhode Island, Philadelphia and some coastal Southern), some of the words in the original short-o class often show influence from other American dialects and end up with [-ɔr-] anyway. For instance, some speakers from the Northeast pronounce Florida, orange, and horrible with [-ɑr-] but foreign and origin with [-ɔr-]. The list of words affected differs from dialect to dialect and occasionally from speaker to speaker, which is an example of sound change by lexical diffusion.

Mergers before historic post-vocalic R

/aʊr/–/aʊər/ merger

The Middle English merger of the vowels with the spellings ⟨our⟩ and ⟨ower⟩ affects all modern varieties of English and makes words like sour and hour, which originally had one syllable, have two syllables and thus rhyme with power. In accents that lack the merger, sour has one syllable, and power has two syllables. Similar mergers also occur in which 'hire' gains a syllable, making it homophonous with 'higher', and 'coir' gains a syllable, making it homophonous with 'coyer'.[15]

Card–cord merger

The cardcord merger or cordcard merger is a merger of Early Modern English [ɑr] with [ɒr], resulting in homophony of pairs like card/cord, barn/born and far/for. It is roughly similar to the father–bother merger but before r. The merger is found in some Caribbean English accents, in some versions of the West Country accent in England and in some accents of Southern American English.[16][17] Areas of the United States in which the merger is most common include Central Texas, Utah, and St. Louis, but it is not dominant even there and is rapidly disappearing.[18] In the United States, dialects with the cardcord merger are some of the only ones without the horse–hoarse merger, and there is a well-documented correlation. [18]

Homophonous pairs
/ɑːr/ /ɒr/ IPA
arc orc ˈɑːrk
are or ˈɑːr
ark orc ˈɑːrk
barn born ˈbɑːrn
card chord ˈkɑːrd
card cord ˈkɑːrd
dark dork ˈdɑːrk
far for ˈfɑːr
farm form ˈfɑːrm
lard lord ˈlɑːrd
mart Mort ˈmɑːrt
R; ar or ˈɑːr
spark spork ˈspɑːrk
stark stork ˈstɑːrk
tar tor ˈtɑːr
tart tort ˈtɑːrt

Cure–force merger

In Modern English dialects, the reflexes of Early Modern English /uːr/ and /iur/ are highly susceptible to phonemic merger with other vowels. Words belonging to that class are most commonly spelled with oor, our, ure, or eur. Examples include poor, tour, cure, Europe (words such as moor ultimately from Old English ō words). Wells refers to the class as the cure words, after the keyword of the lexical set to which he assigns them.

In traditional Received Pronunciation and General American, cure words are pronounced with RP /ʊə/ (/ʊər/ before a vowel) and GA /ʊr/.[19] However, those pronunciations are being replaced by other pronunciations in many English accents.

In the English of southern England, cure words are often pronounced with /ɔː/ and so moor is often pronounced /mɔː/, tour /tɔː/, poor /pɔː/.[20] The traditional form is much more common in northern England. A similar merger is encountered in many varieties of American English, whose prevailing pronunciations are [oə] or [or][ɔr], depending on whether or not the accent is rhotic.[21][22] For many speakers of American English, the historical /uːr/ merges with /ɜr/ after palatal consonants, as in "cure", "sure", "pure" and "mature", or /ɔr/ in other environments such as in "poor" and "moor".[23]

In Australian and New Zealand English, the centring diphthong /ʊə/ has practically disappeared and is replaced in some words by /ʉːə/ (a sequence of two separate monophthongs) and in others by /oː/ (a long monophthong).[24] The outcome that occurs in a particular word is not always predictable, but, for example, pure, cure and tour rhyme with fewer and have /ʉːə/, and poor, moor and sure rhyme with for and paw and have /oː/.

Homophonous pairs
/ʊə/ /ɔː/ IPA Notes
boor boar ˈbɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
boor Boer ˈbɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
boor bore ˈbɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
gourd gaud ˈɡɔːd Non-rhotic.
gourd gored ˈɡɔː(r)d With horsehoarse merger.
lure law ˈlɔː Non-rhotic with yod-dropping.
lure lore ˈlɔː(r) With horse–hoarse merger and yod-dropping.
lured laud ˈlɔːd Non-rhotic with yod-dropping.
lured lawed ˈlɔːd Non-rhotic with yod-dropping.
lured lord ˈlɔː(r)d With yod-dropping.
moor maw ˈmɔː Non-rhotic.
moor more ˈmɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
poor paw ˈpɔː Non-rhotic.
poor pore ˈpɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
poor pour ˈpɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
sure shaw ˈʃɔː Non-rhotic.
sure shore ˈʃɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
tour taw ˈtɔː Non-rhotic.
tour tor ˈtɔː(r)
tour tore ˈtɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
toured toward ˈtɔːd Non-rhotic with horsehoarse merger.
your yaw ˈjɔː Non-rhotic.
your yore ˈjɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.
you're yaw ˈjɔː Non-rhotic.
you're yore ˈjɔː(r) With horsehoarse merger.

Cure–nurse merger

In East Anglia, a cure–nurse merger in which words like fury merge to the sound of furry [ɜː] is common, especially after palatal and palatoalveolar consonants and so sure is often pronounced [ʃɜː], which is also a common single-word merger in American English in which the word sure is often /ʃɜr/. Also, yod-dropping may apply, which yields pronunciations such as [pɜː] for pure. Other pronunciations in curefir merging dialects include /pjɜː(r)/ pure, /ˈk(j)ɜːriəs/ curious, /ˈb(j)ɜːroʊ/ bureau, /ˈm(j)ɜːrəl/ mural.[25]

Homophonous pairs
/jʊə(r)/ /ɜː(r)/ IPA Notes
cure cur ˈkɜː(r)
cure curr ˈkɜː(r)
cured curd ˈkɜː(r)d
cured curred ˈkɜː(r)d
fury furry ˈfɜːri
pure per ˈpɜː(r)
pure purr ˈpɜː(r)

/aɪər//ɑr/ merger

Varieties of Southern American English, Midland American English and High Tider English may merge words like fire and far or tired and tarred towards of the second words: /ɑr/. That results in a tiretar merger, but tower is kept distinct.[26]

/aɪə//aʊə//ɑː/ merger

Some accents of southern British English (including many types of RP and in Norwich) have mergers of the vowels in words like tire, tar (already merged with /ɑː/ as in palm), and tower. Thus, the triphthong /aʊə/ of tower merges with the /aɪə/ of tire (both surfacing as diphthongal [ɑə]) or with the /ɑː/ of tar. Some speakers merge all three sounds, so that tower, tire, and tar are all homophonous as [tɑː].[27]

Homophonous pairs
/aʊə/ /aɪə/ /ɑː/ IPA
Bauer buyer bar ˈbɑː
coward - card ˈkɑːd
cower - car ˈkɑː
cowered - card ˈkɑːd
- fire far ˈfɑː
flour flyer - ˈflɑː
flower flyer - ˈflɑː
hour ire are ˈɑː
hour ire R; ar ˈɑː
Howard hired hard ˈhɑːd
- mire mar ˈmɑː
our ire are ˈɑː
our ire R; ar ˈɑː
power pyre par ˈpɑː
sour sire - ˈsɑː
scour - scar ˈskɑː
shower shire - ˈʃɑː
showered - shard ˈʃɑːd
- spire spar ˈspɑː
tower tire tar ˈtɑː
tower tyre tar ˈtɑː

Horse–hoarse merger

The horsehoarse merger or north–force merger is the merger of the vowels /ɔː/ and /oʊ/ before historic /r/, making pairs of words like horsehoarse, forfour, warwore, oroar, morningmourning etc. homophones. Historically, the NORTH class belonged to the /ɒ/ phoneme (as in contemporary RP lot), but the FORCE class was /oː/ (as in Scottish English go), akin to the contrast between the short lax /ɔ/ and the long tense /oː/ in German.

The merger now occurs in most varieties of English, but the two phonemes were historically separate. In accents with the merger, horse and hoarse are both pronounced [hɔː(r)s~hoː(r)s], but in accents without the merger, hoarse is pronounced with a higher vowel, usually [hors] in rhotic and [hoəs] or the like in non-rhotic accents. Accents that have resisted the merger include most Scottish, Caribbean, and older Southern American accents as well as some African American Vernacular, modern Southern American, Indian, Irish, and older Maine accents.[28][29] Some American speakers retain the original length distinction (with NORTH being pronounced with a vowel that is as short as LOT in RP) but merge the quality and so pronounce hoarse [hɔːrs] longer than horse [hɔrs].[30]

The distinction was made in traditional Received Pronunciation, as represented in the first and second editions of the Oxford English Dictionary. The IPA symbols used are /ɔː/ for horse and /ɔə/ for hoarse. In the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary and in the planned third edition (online entries), the pronunciations of both horse and hoarse are given as /hɔːs/.[31]

In British English dialectology, prevocalic /ɒr/ in accents that distinguish cot and caught is analyzed as LOT + /r/, not NORTH, as those non-rhotic dialects that maintain the distinction feature two vowels that correspond to historic /ɒ/ before intervocalic /r/: LOT and NORTHTHOUGHT, both of which contrast with FORCE. If /ɒr/ is considered to be the contemporary reflex of NORTH, the merger is incomplete in the intervocalic position (at least in RP) and so moral and oral do not rhyme: /ˈmɒrəl, ˈɔːrəl/ (warring, however, was historically /ˈwɒrɪŋ/ and is /ˈwɔːrɪŋ/ because it is derived from war /ˈwɔː/). Before the loss of rhoticity, moral and war had the same stressed vowel /ˈmɒrəl, ˈwɒr/, and the latter was lengthened and raised, merging with THOUGHT: /ˈwɔː/, giving rise to the three-way distinction between prevocalic /ɒr/, /ɔːr/ and /ɔər/ as in moral, warring and oral /ˈmɒrəl, ˈwɔːrɪŋ, ˈɔərəl/ (excluding the marginal /əʊr/, restricted to compounds) because of the derived forms such as warring /ˈwɔːrɪŋ/ (compare the wholly-holy split, which results in creation of a separate /ɒʊ/ phoneme before intervocalic /l/), but the change did not affect all derived forms, such as warrior /ˈwɒriə/.

The distinction between intervocalic /ɒr/ and /ɔːr/ (both distinct from /ɑːr/ as in starry) is stable and also occurs in Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English, and in most regional British English varieties. In Scottish English, which merges cot with caught, moral, war, and warring belong to the NORTH class (LOTTHOUGHT + /r/): /ˈmɔrəl, ˈwɔr, ˈwɔrəŋ/ (as does warrior /ˈwɔriər/), whereas oral, bore and boring feature FORCE (which is GOAT + /r/): /ˈorəl, ˈbor, ˈborəŋ/. The same applies to the conservative General American varieties that preserve the NORTHFORCE distinction.

Some regional non-rhotic British English retains the NORTHFORCE distinction (with NORTH being distinct from LOT + prevocalic /r/, as in RP). That is the case in, for example, South Wales (excluding Cardiff) and some West Midlands English. NORTH is typically the same as THOUGHT, and FORCE varies. The areas of Wales that make the distinction merge it with the monophthongal variety of GOAT: /ˈfoːs/ (see toe–tow merger, which those accents lack), but in the West Midlands, it corresponds to GOAT + COMMA: /ˈfʌʊəs/ or to a separate /oə/ phoneme: /ˈfoəs/. The words beloning to each set vary to an extent region to region, and speakers from Port Talbot tend to use FORCE, instead of the etymologically correct NORTH, in forceps, fortress, important and importance.[32][33]

The Cockney English distinction between /oː/ and /ɔə/ is not related to the NORTHFORCE distinction, which does not exist in that dialect. Instead, it is the THOUGHT split, which gives rise to the phonemic distinction between /oː/ and /ɔə/ in the preconsonantal position, as in board /ˈboːd/ and bored /ˈbɔəd/ as well as pause /ˈpoːz/ and paws /ˈpɔəz/.

In the United States, the merger is widespread everywhere but is quite recent in some parts of the country. For example, fieldwork performed in the 1930s by Kurath and McDavid shows the contrast robustly present in the speech of Vermont, northern and western New York State, Virginia, central and southern West Virginia, and North Carolina,[34] as well as the whole Atlantic coast (North and South),[18] but by the 1990s, telephone surveys conducted by Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006) show those areas as having completely or almost completely undergone the merger;[35] and even in areas in which the distinction is still made, the acoustic difference between the [ɔɹ] of horse and the [oɹ] of hoarse is rather small for many speakers.[18] In Labov et al.'s 2006 study, most white participants in only the following American cities continue to resist the merger: Wilmington, North Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and Portland, Maine.[36] A 2013 study of Portland, however, found the merger already now established in Portland "at all age levels".[37] In Labov et al.'s study, even St. Louis, Missouri, which traditionally maintained the horsehoarse distinction so strongly that it instead merged card and cord, showed that only 50% of the participants now continuing to maintain the distinction. The same pattern (a horsehoarse distinction coupled with a cardcord merger) also exists in a minority of speakers in Texas and Utah. New Orleans prominently shows much variability regarding the merger, including some speakers with no merger at all. Though black Americans are rapidly undergoing the merger, they are also less likely to do so than white Americans, with a little over half of Labov et al.'s black participants maintaining the merger nationwide.[38]

The two groups of words merged by the rule are called the lexical sets north (including horse) and force (including hoarse) by Wells (1982).

Words with the FORCE vowel that are not written with an obviously long vowel are relatively more likely to occur in the following circumstances:

  • When the vowel immediately follows a labial consonant, /p b f v w/, as in the word force itself.
  • In past participle words in -orn whose corresponding past tense forms are in -ore, as in torn.
  • If a vowel spelling ends with a silent e, as in horde.
Less obvious horsehoarse distinctions
Horse class Hoarse class
border, born, California, corpse, cyborg, fork, form, fortress, forty, important, morgue, morning, morse, morsel, porn, spork, warn afford, borne, Borneo, corps, deport, divorce, export, fjord, force, ford, forge, fort, forth, horde, import, porcelain, porch, pork, port, portal, portend, portent, porter, portion, portrait, proportion, report, shorn, sport, support, sword, sworn, torn, worn
Homophonous pairs
/oə/ /ɔː/ IPA Notes
boar boor ˈbɔː(r) with cure–force merger
board baud ˈbɔːd non-rhotic
board bawd ˈbɔːd non-rhotic
boarder border ˈbɔː(r)də(r)
Boer boor ˈbɔː(r) with cure–force merger
bore boor ˈbɔː(r) with cure–force merger
bored baud ˈbɔːd non-rhotic
bored bawd ˈbɔːd non-rhotic
borne bawn ˈbɔːn non-rhotic
borne born ˈbɔː(r)n
Bourne bawn ˈbɔːn non-rhotic
Bourne born ˈbɔː(r)n
bourse boss ˈbɔːs non-rhotic
core caw ˈkɔː non-rhotic
cored cawed ˈkɔːd non-rhotic
cored chord ˈkɔː(r)d
cored cord ˈkɔː(r)d
cores cause ˈkɔːz non-rhotic
corps caw ˈkɔː non-rhotic
court caught ˈkɔːt non-rhotic
door daw ˈdɔː non-rhotic
floor flaw ˈflɔː non-rhotic
fore for ˈfɔː(r)
fort fought ˈfɔːt non-rhotic
four for ˈfɔː(r)
gored gaud ˈɡɔːd non-rhotic
hoarse horse ˈhɔː(r)s
hoarse hoss[39] ˈhɔːs non-rhotic
lore law ˈlɔː non-rhotic
more maw ˈmɔː non-rhotic
mourning morning ˈmɔː(r)nɪŋ
oar awe ˈɔː non-rhotic
oar or ˈɔː(r)
ore awe ˈɔː non-rhotic
ore or ˈɔː(r)
pore paw ˈpɔː non-rhotic
pores pause ˈpɔːz non-rhotic
pour paw ˈpɔː non-rhotic
roar raw ˈrɔː non-rhotic
shore shaw ˈʃɔː non-rhotic
shorn Sean ˈʃɔːn non-rhotic
shorn Shawn ˈʃɔːn non-rhotic
soar saw ˈsɔː non-rhotic
soared sawed ˈsɔːd non-rhotic
sore saw ˈsɔː non-rhotic
source sauce ˈsɔːs non-rhotic
sword sawed ˈsɔːd non-rhotic
tore taw ˈtɔː non-rhotic
tore tor ˈtɔː(r)
wore war ˈwɔː(r)
worn warn ˈwɔː(r)n
yore yaw ˈjɔː non-rhotic

Near–square merger

The near–square merger or cheerchair merger is the merger of the Early Modern English sequences /iːr/ and /ɛːr/ (and the /eːr/ between them), which is found in some accents of modern English. Many speakers in New Zealand[40][41][42] merge them in favor of the NEAR vowel, but some speakers in East Anglia and South Carolina merge them towards the SQUARE vowel.[43] The merger is widespread in the Caribbean, including Jamaican English.

Homophonous pairs
/ɪə(r)/ /eə(r)/ IPA (V=ɪ or e)
beard Baird ˈbVə(r)d
beer bare ˈbVə(r)
beer bear ˈbVə(r)
cheer chair ˈtʃVə(r)
clear Claire ˈklVə(r)
dear dare ˈdVə(r)
deer dare ˈdVə(r)
ear air ˈVə(r)
ear ere ˈVə(r)
ear heir ˈVə(r)
fear fair ˈfVə(r)
fear fare ˈfVə(r)
fleer flair ˈflVə(r)
fleer flare ˈflVə(r)
hear hair ˈhVə(r)
hear hare ˈhVə(r)
here hair ˈhVə(r)
here hare ˈhVə(r)
leer lair ˈlVə(r)
leered laird ˈlVə(r)d
mere mare ˈmVə(r)
near nare ˈnVə(r)
peer pair ˈpVə(r)
peer pare ˈpVə(r)
peer pear ˈpVə(r)
pier pair ˈpVə(r)
pier pare ˈpVə(r)
pier pear ˈpVə(r)
rear rare ˈrVə(r)
shear share ˈʃVə(r)
sheer share ˈʃVə(r)
sneer snare ˈsnVə(r)
spear spare ˈspVə(r)
tear (weep) tare ˈtVə(r)
tear (weep) tear (rip) ˈtVə(r)
tier tare ˈtVə(r)
tier tear (rip) ˈtVə(r)
weary wary ˈwVəri
weir ware ˈwVə(r)
weir wear ˈwVə(r)
we're ware ˈwVə(r)
we're wear ˈwVə(r)

Nurse mergers

This is the merger of as many as five Middle English vowels /ɛ, ɪ, ʊ, ɜ, ə/ into one vowel when it was historically followed by /r/ in the coda of a syllable. The merged vowel is /ɜː/ in Received Pronunciation and /ɜr/ (phonetically a syllabic approximant [ɹ̩] or [ɻ̍]) in American, Canadian, and Irish English. As a result of the merger, the vowels in words like fir, fur, and fern are the same in almost all modern accents of English. The exceptions are Scottish English (where /ɪ/ and /ə/ belong to the same phoneme, so that /ər/ covers both LETTER and one of the NURSE vowels) and some varieties of Irish English. John C. Wells calls it briefly the NURSE merger.[44] The three separate vowels are retained by some speakers of Scottish English. What has been called the termnurse merger is resisted by some speakers of Irish English, but the full merger is found in almost all other dialects of English.

In local working-class Dublin, the West and South-West Region and other very conservative and traditional varieties of Irish English, ranging from the south to the north of the island, the typical English phoneme /ɜːr/ actually retains an opposition as two separate phonemes: /ɛːr/ and /ʊːr/. For example, the words earn and urn are not pronounced the same in those traditional varieties. It is pronounced as /ʊ/ NURSE vowel after a labial consonant as in fern; when it is spelled as "ur" or "or", as in word; or when it is spelled as "ir" after an alveolar stop, as in dirt. In all other cases, the NURSE vowel is pronounced as /ɛ/.[45] Examples with /ɛ/ include certain [ˈsɛːrtn̩], chirp [tʃɛːrp], circle [ˈsɛːrkəl], earn [ɛːrn], earth [ɛːrt], girl [ɡɛːrl], germ [dʒɛːrm], heard or herd [hɛːrd], irk [ɛːrk], and tern [tɛːrn]. Examples for /ʊ/ include bird [bʊːrd], dirt [dʊːrt], first [fʊːrst], murder [ˈmʊːrdɚ], nurse [ˈnʊːrs], turn [tʊːrn], third or turd [tʊːrd], urn [ʊːrn], work [wʊːrk], and world [wʊːrld]. In non-local middle- and upper-class Dublin and in younger and supraregional Irish accents, the difference is seldom preserved, with both variants of NURSE typically merged as [ɝː], the same as or similar to most American accents.

In Scottish English, a distinct nurse or fur vowel is also used in these cases:

In Scottish English, a distinct term or fern vowel is used in these cases:

Some homophonous pairs
/ɛr/ */er/ /ɪr/ /ʌr/ IPA Notes
Bern - - burn ˈbɜː(r)n
Bert - - Burt ˈbɜː(r)t
berth - birth - ˈbɜː(r)θ
- earn - urn ˈɜː(r)n
Ernest earnest - - ˈɜː(r)nɪst
herd heard - - ˈhɜː(r)d
herl - - hurl ˈhɜː(r)l
- Hearst - hurst ˈhɜː(r)st
- - fir fur ˈfɜː(r)
kerb - - curb ˈkɜː(r)b
mer- - myrrh murr ˈmɜː(r)
- - mirk murk ˈmɜː(r)k
per - - purr ˈpɜː(r)
Perl pearl - - ˈpɜː(r)l
tern - - turn ˈtɜː(r)n
were - whirr - ˈwɜː(r) With winewhine merger.
- - whirl whorl ˈwɜː(r)l
- - whirled world ˈwɜː(r)ld With winewhine merger.

Nurse–near merger

Some older varieties of Southern American English and some of England's West Country dialects exhibit a partial merger of nurse-near. They generally realise near as /jɜr/, rhyming with nurse (compare general English realisations of cue and coo) and so words such as beard are pronounced as /bjɜrd/.[49] Usual word pairs like beer and burr are still distinguished as /bjɜr/ and /bɜr/. However, /j/ is dropped after a consonant cluster (as in queer) or a palato-alveolar consonant (as in cheer), likely because of phonotactic constraints. That results in a merger with nurse in those cases: /kwɜr/, /tʃɜr/.

There is evidence that the African American Vernacular English in Memphis, Tennessee, merges both /ɪr/ and /ɛər/ with /ɜr/ and so here and hair are both homophonous with the strong pronunciation of her.[50]

Nurse–north merger

The nurse–north merger (of words like perk towards the sound of pork) involves the merger of /ɜː/ with /ɔː/ that occurs in broadest Geordie.[51] The merger is more accurately called the nurse–north–force–thought merger as the accent is non-rhotic.

Some THOUGHT words (roughly, those spelled with a) have a distinct [] vowel in broad Geordie.[52]

Homophonous pairs
/ɜː/ /ɔː/ IPA Notes
bird board ˈbɔːd
bird bored ˈbɔːd
burn born ˈbɔːn
burn borne ˈbɔːn
curse coarse ˈkɔːs
curse course ˈkɔːs
err oar ˈɔː
err or ˈɔː
err ore ˈɔː
fir for ˈfɔː The weak form of for is distinct: /fə/
fir fore ˈfɔː
fir four ˈfɔː
fur for ˈfɔː The weak form of for is distinct: /fə/
fur fore ˈfɔː
fur four ˈfɔː
heard hoard ˈhɔːd
heard horde ˈhɔːd
her hoar ˈhɔː
her whore ˈhɔː
herd hoard ˈhɔːd
herd horde ˈhɔːd
occur a core əˈkɔː
occur a corps əˈkɔː
occurred a chord əˈkɔːd
occurred a cord əˈkɔːd
occurred accord əˈkɔːd
perk pork ˈpɔːk
purr pore ˈpɔː
purr pour ˈpɔː
sir soar ˈsɔː
sir sore ˈsɔː
stir store ˈstɔː
stirred stored ˈstɔːd
Turk torque ˈtɔːk
turn torn ˈtɔːn
were war ˈwɔː
were wore ˈwɔː
word ward ˈwɔːd
worm warm ˈwɔːm

Square–nurse merger

The square–nurse merger or fairfur merger is a merger of /ɛə/ with /ɜː/ (/eɪr/ and /ɜːr/ in rhotic accents) that occurs in some accents (for example Liverpool, new Dublin, and Belfast).[53] The phonemes are merged to [ɛ:] in Kingston upon Hull and Middlesbrough.[54][55][56]

Shorrocks reports that in the dialect of Bolton, Greater Manchester, the two sets are generally merged to /ɵ:/, but some NURSE words such as first have a short /ɵ/.[57]

The merger is found in some varieties of African American Vernacular English to the sound IPA: [ɜr]: "A recent development reported for some AAE (in Memphis, but likely found elsewhere)".[58] This is exemplified in Chingy's song "Right Thurr"; the merger is heard at the beginning of the song, but he goes on to use standard pronunciation for the rest of the song.

Labov (1994) also reports such a merger in some western parts of the United States "with a high degree of r constriction".

Homophonous pairs
/eə(r)/ /ɜː(r)/ IPA Notes
air err ˈɜː(r)
Baird bird ˈbɜː(r)d
Baird burd ˈbɜː(r)d
Baird burred ˈbɜː(r)d
bare burr ˈbɜː(r)
bared bird ˈbɜː(r)d
bared burd ˈbɜː(r)d
bared burred ˈbɜː(r)d
bear burr ˈbɜː(r)
Blair blur ˈblɜː(r)
blare blur ˈblɜː(r)
cairn kern ˈkɜː(r)n
care cur ˈkɜː(r)
care curr ˈkɜː(r)
cared curd ˈkɜː(r)d
cared curred ˈkɜː(r)d
cared Kurd ˈkɜː(r)d
chair chirr ˈtʃɜː(r)
ere err ˈɜː(r)
fair fir ˈfɜː(r)
fair fur ˈfɜː(r)
fare fir ˈfɜː(r)
fare fur ˈfɜː(r)
hair her ˈhɜː(r)
haired heard ˈhɜː(r)d
haired herd ˈhɜː(r)d
hare her ˈhɜː(r)
heir err ˈɜː(r)
pair per ˈpɜː(r)
pair purr ˈpɜː(r)
pare per ˈpɜː(r)
pare purr ˈpɜː(r)
pear per ˈpɜː(r)
pear purr ˈpɜː(r)
share sure ˈʃɜː(r) with curefir merger
spare spur ˈspɜː(r)
stair stir ˈstɜː(r)
stare stir ˈstɜː(r)
ware whir ˈwɜː(r) with winewhine merger
ware were ˈwɜː(r)
wear whir ˈwɜː(r) with winewhine merger
wear were ˈwɜː(r)
where were ˈwɜː(r) with winewhine merger
where whir ˈhwɜː(r)

See also

Sound samples

  1. ^ "Sample of a speaker with the Marymarrymerry merger Text: "Mary, dear, make me merry; say you'll marry me". alt-usage-english.org. Archived from the original on 2005-09-30. Retrieved 2005-05-22.
  2. ^ "Sample of a speaker with the three-way distinction". alt-usage-english.org. Archived from the original on 2005-09-30. Retrieved 2005-05-22.


  1. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 479–485.
  2. ^ a b Wells (1982), pp. 201–2, 244.
  3. ^ Wells (1982:132, 480–481)
  4. ^ Bauer & Warren (2004), pp. 582, 585, 587–588, 591.
  5. ^ "Dialect Survey Question 15: How do you pronounce Mary/merry/marry?". Archived from the original on November 25, 2006.
  6. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 480-82.
  7. ^ a b c d Dialect Survey.
  8. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 56
  9. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 54, 56.
  10. ^ Bauer & Warren (2004), pp. 582-583, 588, 592.
  11. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 54, 238.
  12. ^ Wells (1982), p. 481.
  13. ^ Labov, William (2006). The Social Stratification of English in New York City (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 29.
  14. ^ Shitara (1993).
  15. ^ "Guide to Pronunciation" (PDF). Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 21, 2015.
  16. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 51–53.
  17. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 158, 160, 347, 483, 548, 576–77, 582, 587.
  18. ^ a b c d Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 51.
  19. ^ "Cure (AmE)". Merriam-Webster."Cure (AmE)". Dictionary.com.
  20. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 56, 65–66, 164, 237, 287–88.
  21. ^ Kenyon (1951), pp. 233–34.
  22. ^ Wells (1982), p. 549.
  23. ^ "Guide to Pronunciation" (PDF). Merriam-Webster.com.
  24. ^ "Distinctive Features: Australian English". Macquarie University. Archived from the original on March 29, 2008. See also Macquarie University Dictionary and other dictionaries of Australian English.
  25. ^ Hammond (1999), p. 52.
  26. ^ Kurath & McDavid (1961), p. 122.
  27. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 238–42, 286, 292–93, 339.
  28. ^ "Chapter 8: Nearly completed mergers". Macquarie University. Archived from the original on July 19, 2006.
  29. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 159–61, 234–36, 287, 408, 421, 483, 549–50, 557, 579, 626.
  30. ^ Wells (1982), p. 483.
  31. ^ OED entries for horse and hoarse
  32. ^ Coupland & Thomas (1990), pp. 95, 122–123, 133–134, 137–138, 156–157.
  33. ^ Clark (2004), pp. 138, 153.
  34. ^ Kurath & McDavid (1961), map 44
  35. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), map 8.2
  36. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 52.
  37. ^ Ryland, Alison (2013). "A Phonetic Exploration of the English of Portland, Maine". Swarthmore College. p. 26.
  38. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 299, 301.
  39. ^ hoss, Dictionary.com
  40. ^ Bauer et al. (2007), p. 98.
  41. ^ Bauer & Warren (2004), p. 592.
  42. ^ Hay, Maclagan & Gordon (2008), pp. 39–41.
  43. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 338, 512, 547, 557, 608.
  44. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 200, 405.
  45. ^ Hickey (1984:330)
  46. ^ Oxford English Dictionary entry at worry
  47. ^ Oxford English Dictionary entries
  48. ^ AHD 2nd edition, 1392
  49. ^ Kurath & McDavid (1961), pp. 117–18 and maps 33–36.
  50. ^ "Child Phonology Laboratory". Archived from the original on April 15, 2005.
  51. ^ Wells (1982:374)
  52. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 360, 375.
  53. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 372, 421, 444.
  54. ^ Handbook of Varieties of English, page 125, Walter de Gruyter, 2004
  55. ^ Williams and Kerswill in Urban Voices, Arnold, London, 1999, page 146
  56. ^ Williams and Kerswill in Urban Voices, Arnold, London, 1999, page 143
  57. ^ Shorrocks, Graham (1998). A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area. Pt. 1: Phonology. Bamberger Beiträge zur englischen Sprachwissenschaft; Bd. 41. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. ISBN 3-631-33066-9.
  58. ^ Thomas, Erik (2007). "Phonological and Phonetic Characteristics of African American Vernacular English". Language and Linguistics Compass 1/5. North Carolina State University. p. 466.


  • Bauer, Laurie; Warren, Paul (2004). "New Zealand English: phonology". In Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive (eds.). A handbook of varieties of English. 1: Phonology. Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 580–602. ISBN 3-11-017532-0.
  • Bauer, Laurie; Warren, Paul; Bardsley, Dianne; Kennedy, Marianna; Major, George (2007). "New Zealand English". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 37 (1): 97–102. doi:10.1017/S0025100306002830.
  • Clark, Urszula (2004). "The English West Midlands: phonology". In Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive (eds.). A handbook of varieties of English. 1: Phonology. Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 134–162. ISBN 3-11-017532-0.
  • Coupland, Nikolas; Thomas, Alan R., eds. (1990). English in Wales: Diversity, Conflict, and Change. Multilingual Matters Ltd. ISBN 978-1-85359-032-0.
  • Hammond, Michael (1999). The Phonology of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-823797-9.
  • Hay, Jennifer; Maclagan, Margaret; Gordon, Elizabeth (2008). "2. Phonetics and Phonology". New Zealand English. Dialects of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-2529-1.
  • Kenyon, John S. (1951). American Pronunciation (10th ed.). Ann Arbor, Michigan: George Wahr Publishing Company. ISBN 1-884739-08-3.
  • Kurath, Hans; McDavid, Raven I. (1961). The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-8173-0129-1.
  • Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter. pp. 187–208. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
  • Shitara, Yuko (1993). "A survey of American pronunciation preferences". Speech Hearing and Language. 7: 201–232.
  • Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Volume 1: An Introduction (pp. i–xx, 1–278), Volume 2: The British Isles (pp. i–xx, 279–466), Volume 3: Beyond the British Isles (pp. i–xx, 467–674). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-52129719-2, 0-52128540-2, 0-52128541-0.

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