English-language vowel changes before historic /r/

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In English, many vowel shifts only affect 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 (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 [ˈɝθ]/, RP [ˈɜːθ/
  • here: GA [ˈhiɹ], RP [ˈhɪə̯]
  • fire: GA [ˈfaɪɹ], RP [ˈfaɪə̯]

In most English dialects, there are vowel shifts only affecting 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 contrasts are possible before a following /r/ in the same syllable (peer, pear, purr, par, pore, poor). Often, more contrasts exist when the /r/ 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,[2][3] 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

Mary–marry–merry merger

One of the best-known mergers of vowels before /r/ is the Mary–marry–merry merger,[4] 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/ (the "r" sound when occurring between vowels).[5] This merger is fairly widespread, meaning completed or at a near-complete stage, in North American English,[sample 1] but rare in other varieties of English. The following variants are common in North America:

  • Full Mary–marry–merry 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 U.S. English speakers, according to a 2003 dialect survey.[1]
  • No merger whatsoever (also known, in context, as the three-way contrast): A lack of this merger in North America exists primarily in the Northeastern United States, e.g. in the accents of Philadelphia, New York City, and Rhode Island. 17% of Americans have no merger. [6][sample 2] In the Philadelphia accent, the three-way contrast is preserved, but merry tends to be merged with Murray; likewise ferry can be a homophone of furry. (See furry–ferry merger below.) The three-way contrast is found in about 17% of U.S. English speakers overall.[1]
  • Mary–marry merger only: This is only found in about 16% of U.S. English speakers overall, particularly in the Northeast.[2]
  • Mary–merry merger only: This is found among Anglophones in Montreal and in about 9% of U.S. English speakers overall, particularly in the eastern half of the U.S.[1][7]
  • merry-marry merger only: This merger is rare, found in only about 1% of U.S. 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" ([ˈmɛəɹi]), marry has the "short a" sound of "mat" ([ˈmæɹi]), and merry has the "short e" sound of "met" ([ˈmɛɹi]). There is plenty of variance in the distribution of the merger, with expatriate communities of these speakers being formed all over the country. The most common phonetic value of the merged vowel is [ɛ], so that, for example, Mary, marry, and merry for many Americans all become merged as [ˈmɛɹi].[3]

Mirror–nearer merger

Another widespread merger is that of /ɪ/ with /iː/ before intervocalic /r/ (in other words, the sound "r" when between vowels). The typical result of the merger is [i(ː)ɹ] or [i(ː)ɚ]. For speakers with this merger, mirror and nearer rhyme, unless mirror has merged with mere, and Sirius is homophonous with serious. North Americans who do not merge these vowels often speak the more conservative northeastern or southern accents.

Mirror–mere merger

This merger is found in many accents of North American English, especially those that pronounce /r/ as a labialized retroflex approximant [ɻʷ]. An unstressed /rəC/ or /rɨC/ can elide the /ə/ to become /rC/, deleting a syllable as a result. The most common is /rər/ or /rɨr/ reducing to [r] anywhere in a word, producing possible homophones like error-air, horror-whore, mirror-mere and terror-tear. This can be an uneven merger, with mirror-mere merging while most other pairs do not. In rapid speech, this can also cause words ending with /r/ to merge with their respective inflected forms suffixed with -er, producing homophones like near-nearer and sure-surer, though speakers may subtly enunciate the difference to keep the words distinct, such as [ˈnɪɹ] vs. [ˈnɪɹ ː ~ ˈnɪɹ.ɹ̩]. Other sequences of /rəC/ usually reduce non-word-finally, producing possible homophones like coroner-corner, Morrigan-Morgan and Oregon-organ. Word-final sequences tend not to reduce, but there are exceptions such as orange [ˈɔɹəndʒ]. The mirror-mere merger is usually strongest in the Western United States, and most absent in the Northeastern United States, the Southern United States and from non-rhotic North American accents in general.

Hurry–furry merger

The vowel /ʌ/ before intervocalic /r/ is merged with /ɝ/ in many dialects of American English, but not in the Northeast and the South[8][clarification needed] or in dialects outside North America. Speakers with this merger pronounce hurry so that it rhymes with furry, and turret so that it rhymes with stir it.

Furry–ferry merger

The merger of /ɜ/ and /ɛ/ before /r/ (both neutralized with syllabic r) is common in the Philadelphia accent.[9] This accent does not usually have the marry–merry merger. That is, "short a" /æ/ as in marry is a distinct unmerged class before /r/. Thus, merry and Murray are pronounced the same, but marry is distinct from this pair.

Historic "short o" before intervocalic R

Words that would have a stressed /ɒ/ before intervocalic /r/ in the UK's Received Pronunciation (RP) 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 [-ɔɹ-], as in cord (and thus merge with historic prevocalic /ɔːr/ in words like glory because of the horse–hoarse merger). In the accents of New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Carolinas (and traditionally throughout the South), these words are pronounced among some with [-ɑɹ-], as in card (and thus merge with historic prevocalic /ɑːr/ in words like starry). In the traditional Eastern New England accents (famously, the Rhode Island and Boston accents) these words are pronounced with [-ɒɹ-], just like in RP. Most of the rest of the United States (marked "General American" in the table), however, has a distinctive mixed system: while the majority of words are pronounced as in Canada, the four (sometimes five) words in the left-hand column are typically pronounced with [-ɑɹ-].[10]

Example words with /ɒr/ and /ɔr/ before a vowel by dialect:
represented by the diaphoneme /ɒr/ represented by the diaphoneme /ɔːr/ and /ɔər/
pronounced [ɒɹ] in England pronounced [ɔːɹ] in England
pronounced [ɒɹ] in Eastern New England pronounced [ɔɹ] in Boston
pronounced [ɔɹ] in Canada
pronounced [ɑɹ] in New York City pronounced [ɔɹ] in New York City
pronounced [ɑɹ] in General American pronounced [ɔɹ] in General American
(only these exact words:)
borrow, sorry, sorrow, tomorrow (morrow)
corridor, euphoric,
foreign, forest,
Florida, historic,
horrible, majority,
minority, moral,
orange, Oregon,
origin, porridge,
priority, quarantine,
quarrel, sorority,
warranty, warren,
warrior (etc.)
aura, boring,
deplorable, flooring,
flora, glory,
hoary, memorial,
menorah, orientation,
Moorish, oral,
pouring, scorer,
storage, story,
Tory, warring (etc.)

Even in the Northeastern accents without the split (Boston, New York, Philadelphia), some of the words in the original short-o class often show influence from other American dialects and end up with [-ɔɹ-] anyway. For instance, some speakers from the Northeast may, for example, pronounce Florida, orange, and horrible with [-ɑɹ-], but foreign and origin with [-ɔɹ-]. Exactly which words are affected by this differs from dialect to dialect and occasionally from speaker to speaker, an example of sound change by lexical diffusion.

Mergers and splits before historic coda r

Near–square merger

The near–square merger (or cheer–chair 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. Some speakers in New York City[citation needed] and many speakers in New Zealand[4][5][6] merge them in favor of the NEAR vowel, while some speakers in East Anglia and South Carolina merge them in favor of the SQUARE vowel.[11] The merger is widespread in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Fern–fir–fur merger

The fern–fir–fur merger is the merger of the Middle English vowels /ɛ, ɪ, ʊ/ into [ɜ] when historically followed by /r/ in the coda of the syllable. As a result of this merger, the vowels in fern, fir and fur are the same in almost all accents of English; the exceptions are Scottish English.

In non-merging accents:

Square–nurse merger

The square–nurse merger (also the fur–fair merger) is a merger of /ɜː(r)/ with /eə(r)/ that occurs in some accents (for example Liverpool, Dublin, and Belfast).[12] The phonemes are merged to [ɛ:] in Hull and Middlesbrough.[7][8][9]

This merger is found in some varieties of African American Vernacular English. (For example, 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.[sample 3])

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

Nurse-north merger

The nurse-north merger is a merger of the English vowels /ɜr/ and /ɔr/ into [ɔː] that occurs in broadest Geordie.[10]

Steer-stir merger

In older varieties of Southern American English and the West Country dialects of English English, words like ear, here, and beard are pronounced /jɝ/, /hjɝ/, /bjɝd/,[13] meaning that there is no complete merger: word pairs like beer and burr are still distinguished as /bjɝ/ vs. /bɝ/. However, if the syllable begins with a consonant cluster (e.g. queer) or a palato-alveolar consonant (e.g. cheer), then there is no /j/ sound: /kwɝ/, /tʃɝ/. It is thus possible that pairs like steer-stir are merged in some accents as /stɝ/, although this is not explicitly reported in the literature.

There is evidence that African American Vernacular English speakers in Memphis, Tennessee, merge both /ɪr/ and /ɛər/ with /ɝ/, so that here and hair are both homophonous with the strong pronunciation of her.[14]

Tower–tire, tower–tar and tire–tar mergers

The tower–tire and tower–tar mergers are vowel mergers in some accents of Southern British English (including many types of RP, as well as the accent of Norwich) that causes the triphthong /aʊə/ of tower to merge either 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].[15]

The tire–tar merger, with tower kept distinct, is found in some Midland and Southern U.S. accents.[16]

Cure–fir merger

In East Anglia a merger with the [ɜː] of shirt is common, especially after palatal and palatoalveolar consonants, so that sure is often pronounced [ʃɜː] (which is also a common single-word merger in American English, in which the word sure is often /ʃɚ/); yod-dropping may apply as well, yielding pronunciations such as [pɜː] for pure. Other pronunciations in cure–fir merging dialects include /pjɝ/ pure, /ˈk(j)ɝiəs/ curious, /ˈb(j)ɝoʊ/ bureau, /ˈm(j)ɝəl/ mural.[17]

Pour–poor 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 this class are most commonly spelled with oor, our, ure, or eur; examples include poor, tour, cure, Europe. Wells refers to this 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 GenAm /ʊr/.[11] But these pronunciations are being replaced by other pronunciations in many English accents.

In southern English English it is now common to pronounce CURE words with /ɔː/, so that moor is often pronounced /mɔː/, tour /tɔː/, poor /pɔː/.[18] The traditional form is much more common in the northern counties of England. A similar merger is encountered in many varieties of American English, where the pronunciations [oə] or [or]~[ɔr] (depending on whether the accent is rhotic or non-rhotic) prevail.[19][20]

Pure–poor split

The pure–poor split is a phonemic split that occurs in Australian and New Zealand English that causes the centring diphthong /ʊə/ to disappear and split into /ʉː.ə/ (a sequence of two separate monophthongs) and /oː/ (a long monophthong), causing pure, cure, and tour to rhyme with fewer, and poor, moor and sure to rhyme with for and paw.[21][22]

Where the /ʊə/ becomes /ʉː.ə/ and where it becomes /oː/ is not very predictable. But words spelt with -oor that originally had /ʊə/ become /oː/ rhyming with the words door and floor two words that rhyme with store in all dialects of English except a few older northern British dialects.

A similar split occurs in many varieties of North American English that causes /ʊr/ to disappear and split into /ɝ/ and /ɔr/, causing pure, cure, lure, sure to rhyme with fir, and poor, moor, boor to rhyme with store and for. In many of these dialects, tour remains with /ʊr/, leading to a three-way split between tour /tʊr/ (although often sounding more like [tur]), pure /pjɝ/ and poor /pɔr/.[citation needed] In some others, tour changes to disyllabic [ˈtu.ɚ] or [ˈtu.ɪ̈ɹ].[citation needed]

Card–cord merger

The card–cord 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 Southern and Western U.S. accents.[23][24] Areas where the merger occurs include central Texas, Utah, and St. Louis.[citation needed] Dialects with the card–cord merger don't have the horse–hoarse merger. The merger is disappearing in the United States, being replaced by the more common horse–hoarse merger that other regions have.

Horse–hoarse merger

Red areas show where in the U.S. the distinction between horse and hoarse is still made or perceived by a majority of speakers. Many black speakers maintain the distinction throughout the country. Map based on Labov, Ash, and Boberg[1]

The horse–hoarse merger (alternative name: north–force merger) is the merger of the vowels /ɔ/ and /o/ before historic /r/, making pairs of words like horse/hoarse, for/four, war/wore, or/oar, morning/mourning etc. homophones. This merger occurs in most varieties of English. In accents that have the merger horse and hoarse are both pronounced [hɔː(ɹ)s], but in accents that do not have the merger hoarse is pronounced differently, usually [hoɹs] in rhotic and [hoəs] or the like in non-rhotic accents. Non-merging accents include Scottish English, Hiberno-English, the Boston accent, Southern American English, African American Vernacular English, most varieties of Caribbean English, and Indian English.[25][26]

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 (on-line entries), the pronunciations of horse and of hoarse are both given as /hɔːs/.

In the United States, the merger 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[27]; but by the 1990s telephone surveys conducted by Labov, Ash, and Boberg show these areas as having almost completely undergone the merger.[28] And even in areas where the distinction is still made, the acoustic difference between the [ɔr] of horse and the [or] of hoarse is rather small for many speakers.[29]

The two groups of words merged by this rule are called the lexical sets NORTH (including horse) and FORCE (including hoarse) by Wells (1982). Etymologically, the NORTH words had /ɒɹ/ and the FORCE words had /oːɹ/.

The orthography of a word often signals whether it belongs in the NORTH set or the FORCE set. The spellings war, quar, aur, and word-final or indicate NORTH (e.g., quarter, war, warm, warn, aura, aural, Thor). The spellings oVr or orV (where V stands for a vowel) indicate FORCE (e.g., board, coarse, hoarse, door, floor, course, pour, oral, more, historian, moron, glory). Words spelled or followed by a consonant mostly belong with NORTH, but the following exceptions are listed with FORCE by Wells (1982):

  • The past participles borne (but not born), shorn, sworn, torn and worn
  • Some (but not all) words where or follows a labial consonant:
    • Borneo
    • afford, force, ford, forge, fort (but not fortress), forth
    • deport, export, import (but not important), porch, pork, port, portend, portent, porter, portion, portrait, proportion, report, sport, support
    • divorce
    • sword
  • The word corps (but not corpse; corps is a perfect homophone of core)
  • The word horde (a perfect homophone of hoard)

Flower–flour merger

The flower–flour merger is a merger that occurs in most varieties of English that makes words like sour and our have two syllables and makes flour and flower homophones. In accents that don't have the merger, flour has one syllable and flower has two syllables. Similar mergers also occur where "hire" gains a syllable rhyming with "flyer" and "coir" gains a syllable rhyming with "foyer" and "employer". [30]

See also

Sound samples

  1. http://www.alt-usage-english.org/mmm_bc.wav Sample of a speaker with the Mary–marry–merry merger Text: "Mary, dear, make me merry; say you'll marry me."
  2. http://www.alt-usage-english.org/mmm_rf.wav Sample of a speaker with the three-way distinction
  3. http://ldc.upenn.edu/myl/thurr.mp3 Text: "I like the way you do that right there (right there)/Swing your hips when you're walkin', let down your hair (let down your hair)/I like the way you do that right there (right there)/Lick your lips when you're talkin', that make me stare"


  1. ^ http://students.csci.unt.edu/~kun/tln.html[dead link]
  2. ^ Wells, pp. 479–485.
  3. ^ "Dialect Survey Question 15: How do you pronounce Mary/merry/marry?". Archived from the original on November 25, 2006. 
  4. ^ Wells, p. 480-82
  5. ^ Labov et al., p. 54, 56
  6. ^ Labov et al., p. 56
  7. ^ Wells, pp. 201–2, 244
  8. ^ Labov et al., pp. 54, 238
  9. ^ Shitara
  10. ^ Wells, pp. 338, 512, 547, 557, 608
  11. ^ Wells, pp. 199–203, 407, 444
  12. ^ Wells, pp. 372, 421, 444
  13. ^ Kurath and McDavid, pp. 117–18 and maps 33–36.
  14. ^ "Child Phonology Laboratory". Archived from the original on April 15, 2005. 
  15. ^ Wells, pp. 238–42, 286, 292–93, 339
  16. ^ Kurath and McDavid, p. 122
  17. ^ Wells, p. 164
  18. ^ Hammond, p. 52
  19. ^ Wells, pp. 56, 65–66, 164, 237, 287–88
  20. ^ Kenyon, pp. 233–34
  21. ^ Wells, p. 549
  22. ^ "Distinctive Features: Australian English". Macquarie University. Archived from the original on March 29, 2008. 
  23. ^ Macquarie University Dictionary and other dictionaries of Australian English
  24. ^ Labov et al., pp. 51–53
  25. ^ Wells, pp. 158, 160, 347, 483, 548, 576–77, 582, 587
  26. ^ Labov et al., p. 52
  27. ^ "Chapter 8: Nearly completed mergers". Macquarie University. Archived from the original on July 19, 2006. 
  28. ^ Wells, pp. 159–61, 234–36, 287, 408, 421, 483, 549–50, 557, 579, 626
  29. ^ Kurath and McDavid, map 44
  30. ^ Labov et al., map 8.2
  31. ^ Labov et al., p. 51
  32. ^ "Guide to Pronunciation" (PDF). Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 21, 2015. 


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Dialect Survey.
  2. Dialect Survey.
  3. Wells (1982c:485)
  4. Bauer et al. (2007:98)
  5. Bauer & Warren (2004:592)
  6. Hay, Maclagan & Gordon (2008:39–41)
  7. Handbook of Varieties of English, page 125, Walter de Gruyter, 2004
  8. Williams and Kerswill in Urban Voices, Arnold, London, 1999, page 146
  9. Williams and Kerswill in Urban Voices, Arnold, London, 1999, page 143
  10. Wells (1982b:374)
  11. "Cure (AmE)". Merriam-Webster. "Cure (AmE)". Dictionary.com. 
  12. hoss, Dictionary.com


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