Most Americans, myself included, have this thing called the Mary-merry-marry merger. We pronounce all three words—and the vowels in similarly patterning words—the same. However, some Americans retain at least a two-way distinction and most, if not all, varieties of English outside of North America distinguish between all three.
As is typical for people with a merger, it’s not easy for me to separate words into their historic distributions. But sometimes I need to for teaching or preparing wordlists. So, as I prepared to cover the merger (or rather, the lack thereof) in my Varieties of English course this semester, I wanted to show the students a list of words that group with Mary, merry, and marry. But I couldn’t find a decent list anywhere. So I asked Twitter and I was plesantly surprised to get lots of help from my non-merging followers!
Is there a wordlist somewhere (perhaps an appendix to a paper) with a decent list of MARY, MERRY, and MARRY words?
(I know the list wouldn't be universal for all non-mergers, but as a MMM-merger myself, I have zero intuition about this stuff.)
Thank you to all those who sent me lists of words that belong to each class! And to those who pointed me to searchable dictionaries that distinguish between the three! I won’t mention names here, but I hope they are okay with me turning their collective input into a blog post.
So, the purpose of this post is to provide the most comprehensive list I could come up with of Mary, merry, and marry words—the list I was hoping to find a few days ago—just in case any other American needs it.
Note: I’m told that outside the US, there is little variation in which class each word belongs to. However, in areas of North America that do make some distinction, there can be some variability. So I guess take this list with a grain of salt.
The first set, merry, is actually the dress lexical set. John Wells points out that merry is typically spelled with <e>. It also seems like a lot of French words have this vowel.
Here are some words that were verified by some folks who do not have the merger.
Here’s a more complete list from the Britphone dictionary, based on the search pattern “ˈɛ ɹ” with a few additions from The Routledge Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English, based on the search pattern “ɛr|”.
And here’s a longer list from the Britphone dictionary, based on the search pattern “ˈæ ɹ” with a few additions from The Routledge Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English, based on the search pattern “ar|”.
It occured to me that the search patterns that I used only included words that, in UK English, are pronounced with /ɹ/ (i.e. the /ɹ/ is intervocalic). So you’ll notice that caring is on the list of Mary words but care is not. So I searched for tokens in Britphone with “ˈɛə” that are not followed by an /ɹ/ (so, preconsonantal and word-final) to produce the following list.
This list includes words that I thought were from different lexical sets. For example, care and hair are on this list, which are presumably part of Mary since caring and hairy are too, but then the word square is also in this list, which is, by definition, part of merry, since merry is just square. But, when I asked for clarification on Twitter, I was told that these are all square—and therefore Mary.
Okay, so what about "pair", "pear", and "pare"? Is that a minimal triplet for the non-MMM-mergers out there?
Britphone doesn't differentiate the classes word-finally, so "care" and "square" are both ˈɛə even though I'm pretty sure they're respectively DRESS and SQAURE. https://t.co/3esqw2l4FO
Finally, when I searched the The Routledge Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English, I found these 695 words containing the search pattern “ɛ:r”. I didn’t bother incorporating them into the above list because many of them are very infrequent words. But I wanted to include them for the sake of completeness.
I hope this list is useful to other folks who have the merger but need to distinguish them for whatever reason. I’m starting to remember which class words belong to a little bit, though this is just learned knowledge rather than intuition. Also, if anyone has different intuitions than what this page shows, please let me know!