Thursday, October 05, 2006

Awf Tawpic

I make no apologies for being one of the lazy-tongued, lazy-eared (in my Post colleague Gene Weingarten's words) people who pronounce "Mary," "marry" and "merry" identically. Also, "Aaron" and "Erin": I might "think" different things when I say the two names, but the first syllable is exactly the same -- "air" (any thoughts, Airhen?). I'm also one of those people who rhyme "what" with "gut," not "squat" (and forget about that dyslexic-schoolmarm "hwat," "hwich," "hwen" nonsense with the "wh" words).

I'm as much of an accent snob as Gene is, and so I can't get too worked up about his assertion that the bizarre accent of his native New York City is superior to my Michigan-softened-by-a-quarter-century-away lack thereof. I get just as obnoxious in denouncing the equation of "Don" and "Dawn," or "cot" and "caught" (in the only linguistics course I've taken, the instructor informed me that only those with strange acccents differentiate those vowel sounds). And don't get me started on pens and pins.

I used to give a friend of mine a lot of crap about referring to milk as "melk." When he would try to say the word correctly, he could do it only in an unnatural, exaggerated way -- "miiiiiiillk." I do the same sort of thing when I try to come up with a "marry" or "merry" that isn't "Mary." My Gene-correct "marry" sounds like a bad impersonation of Rhoda Morgenstern, and my attempt at a Gene-correct "merry" is a sound not of this planet.

What do you say?

36 comments:

Shaun G said...

If you're trying to say "marry" but don't want to rhyme with "mary," why not just say it as you would "harry" ... or does your "harry" sound like "hairy"?

Bill said...

But I do want them to rhyme, because they just do! Yes, my "hairy" and "Harry" are the same (hence the humor in the "Sesame Street" name Harry Monster).

This is why I will never open a dairy in Derry.

Mo said...

Wait, you mean they aren't supposed to rhyme?

Maybe it's the Southwest, or the southern U.S. in general, but I've never heard "marry" spoken differently than "merry" or "Mary."

Bill said...

It seems to be largely a New York thing, elongating and exaggerating the "a"-as-in-"apple" sound for the "a" in "marry."

Séamas Ó Brógáin said...

But "Erin" should rhyme with "Aaron" (at least as far as the first vowel is concerned). It's an Anglicised spelling of Éirinn (Irish for "Ireland").

Bill said...

The New Yawkers would argue that any attempt to say "Aaron" must take those two A's to heart, that the speaker must dwell on that A-as-in-apple sound with all his or her heart. That, I can at least mimic (again with the Valerie Harper impersonation). Making the first vowel in "Erin" the same vowel as in "head" and "bed" strikes me as even more ridicuous, but they would say that's the way it must be done.

I've edited my original post a little to make it clearer that I don't subscribe to any of this.

fev said...

Sorry you had such bad luck in linguistics instructors. "Correct" ain't any part of any of those distinctions. Y'all ought to whack Gene Weingarten upside the head with something.

Bill said...

Gene's playing this for chuckles to some extent, but he does assert something to the effect of "An accent that distinguishes two different words is superior to one that does not." I'd be on thin ice to take issue with that, given my views on some weightier topics, but on the other hand I can claim the high ground because I actually pronounce my R's.

Len said...

In Rhode Island, my birthplace, I saw a bumper sticker a few years ago that read as follows: "In Rhode Island, Drunk Drivers Get Caught." I had to study it for a while and put it through my Rhode Island accent filter, but I finally got the joke. You see, in rhode Island, "caught" and "court" are homonyms.

Jeff said...

Owe come awn, hon.

Balmer accents are the worse.

fev said...

So an accent that distinguishes "its" from "it's" is better than one that doesn't? Just checking.

I'm thinking you guys ought to let Gene cover more shuttle launches. He'd get right to the really important stuff about whether it's OK to dock with the space station when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

Aaron said...

My family escaped from New York hwen I was 2, and I have pronounced my name "Erin" ever since I can remember.

Hwen people ask my name, I say, "Erin. Or 'Aaron' if you're from New York."

I sign my e-mails "Airon."

If I ever become a Realtor(r), I will likely begin pronouncing it "Aeron."

Penguin78 said...

Len, I think you'll find "caught" and "court" are homophones, not homonyms.

MuPu said...

I think that Penguin78's point is a little off the mark.

The term homonym -- as it's generally used -- covers a range of things, including homophones.

A distinction needs to be made only when making a technical comparison between words that are either homonyms or homophones. In other words, homonym has two definitions, one for general use and one for use in comparisons.

I think that Len properly used the term in its broadest sense. He wasn't comparing his homonyms to anything else, so there was no need to be more specific.

Someone here is going to want to point out that we're operating in an environment for copy editors -- and that that puts the specificity factor in place. Whatever.

MuPu said...

I see that Penguin78 is from Australia. It could very well be that they have a purer usage of the term homonym Down Under.

Len said...

I knew it was something like that. Of course, pen (if you don't mind the familiarity), you are right. I mistyped.

And Mu (again, I hope you don't mind the first syllable familiarity), thanks for the defense. Unfortuately, the only defense I can provide myself is the one Samuel Johnson gave when asked why he defined "pastern" as the knee of a horse": "ignorance, madam. Pure ignorance."

Penguin78 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Penguin78 said...

The OED defines 'homonym' as words that are spelled and pronounced the same; a 'homophone' as words that are pronounced the same but spelled differenty; and a 'homograph' as words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently.

Lillie said...

I love the "marry," "Mary," "merry" thing. I don't believe in the superiority or inferiority of any accent, but I am grateful to have grown up distinguishing among the "er" sounds because, well, why not make things a little clearer?

I was feeling especially pleased with my New York speech this weekend, when I was in a spelling bee (for grown-ups -- it's an annual fundraiser for Anchorage Literacy Project). It certainly helps one's spelling to make those distinctions.

Then again, in the same bee last year, I got out on "perinephrium" because I spelled it "paranephrium." If only the pronouncer had spoken like me.

Bill said...

I do think of just how stupid I would consider anybody who talked of "Don the man and Don the woman," and so I feel the teensiest bit helpless when I think of myself saying "Erin the man and Erin the woman" or "have a Mary wedding when you Mary Mary," but I still can't bring myself to consider the latter two distinctions valid in modern spoken English, at least in any of the several regions in which I've lived.

I have progressed beyond writing on soocases or mirrs with Crayola crans, though, so I must admit that these things are not set in stone even for any one person.

Lillie said...

Addendum: I feel I should add that the notion that those who blend the three are "lazy" is ridiculous. Very few people try to have the accent with which they speak; it's what we're raised with. I'm probably preaching to the choir (unless Weingarten is reading).

Plus, if everyone in the COUNTRY pronounces them the same except New Yorkers, why on earth would we (New Yorkers) think we're "right"?

Bill said...

I would love say "amen," but "ink pin"? PEN! PEN! Say it, Cletus!

Lillie said...

Nah, I get out of people who talk about fountain pins, too. Accents rock.
So do you say "ink" or "eenk"?

Bill said...

The residual Michigan in me chafes at attempts to make the short vowels uber-short. Ink rhymes with ring, not with pin. The vowel in egg is more like Craig than like Ned.

Stephen Jones said...

We Brits pronounce Mary, marry, and mary with three different phonemes, but caught and court are pronounced identically.

Stephen Jones said...

sorry, that should be Mary, marry and merry

Tom Steele said...

Here's a Web site with a fairly extensive dialect survey.

Bill said...

Thanks, Tom; I really enjoyed taking that survey. It's surprising how many issues I'm ambivalent about. Ape-ricot, app-ricot? I'm not sure!

Bill said...

Ironic that time-starved New Yawkers have the luxury of standing there for nine minutes to say Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhron and make quintupally sure people don't mistake that for "Err-in."

(Note that I don't use the "Noo Yawkers" cliche. The "Yawkers" is a legitimate issue; R does exist. But "Noo" vs. "Nyewww" falls into the schoolmarm-"hwat" category.)

LFelaco said...

I used to work with a woman named Dawn who pronounced her name Don, and it drove me crazy (plus confused the heck out of people calling for someone they thought was Don only to be connected to a woman's phone). In my family, we followed all of the phonetic distinctions in this thread, but both my parents were schoolteachers, so that might have had something to do with it. We also pronounce ant and aunt differently. Although my sister was horrified to discover as an adult that bury is actually correctly pronounced berry.

LFelaco said...

P.S. Like Len, I grew up in Rhode Island, and I remember being very confused when outsiders would talk about Rhode Islanders dropping their r's, because I heard them if I knew they were supposed to be there, even when people didn't pronounce them.

stoobiedoo said...

During my one and only visit to New York, back in the '80s, I ate at a deli in Manhattan that had a sign on the wall saying, "Buy a salami for your boy in the Army." Still reeling from the realization that for a New Yorker, that rhymes, I do not look to that city for authorities on pronunciation.

In the parts of Canada I've lived in and visted, "Mary" and "merry" sound the same but differ from "marry" in the same way that "very" differs from "vary."

I think there is something to be said for putting a little effort into distinguishing sounds where we can. People might write "you're" instead of "your" if they said "u-er" and "yor".

Stuart said...

Coming from Australia I always thought Bob from Sesame Street's name was really Barb and would pronounce him Barb whenever I referred to him. And I always thought it was Hairy Monster and now you're telling me it's Harry? Argh!

Paul said...

I'm a New Zeander whose accent has morphed into an Australian one. Kiwis delight in pronouncing air, hair, air here and heir almost identically. There's a rumour that English once once heard in Sydney in 1788 but this has yet to be confirmed. Radio New Zealaad makes some effort to make life easier for foreign listeners.

Katie said...

HELP ON HOMOPHONES!!! IN TEXAS!!!

My daughter's 4th grade teacher laughed at my daughter when she picked (from a prepared lesson plan on homophones) "COT" and "CAUGHT" as homophones. The teacher said, "reaaalllllly, do tell!"

The teacher said one is pronounced "cot-AH" and one "Cot"

God help me

What on earth? for all intents and purposes I would wager that the lesson plan had the two words on there to indicate to the kids they are homophones. NOT to teach them some bizarre dialect/accent that pronounces CAUGHT like a redneck teaching a 3 yr old to talk..."no johnny...say CAUT-AH!"

Bill said...

I guess there's a happy medium -- they're certainly not homophones in my world, but that teacher sounds as loopy as my professor. I bought a cought? I bot a cot? Aw. Ah!