American English from sea to shining sea, part 2

Sep 30, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I’ve mentioned a number of lexical peculiarities of various regional American English dialects. Let’s now consider some pronunciation peculiarities.

Take, for example, the name Mary, the adjective merry and the verb marry. Do you pronounce them the same or different? As can be seen from the map below, the majority (56.88%) of the 11,422 responders in this survey pronounce all three exactly the same. Another 17.34% — mostly from Philadelphia and the neighboring area pronounce all three differently. Another common way to pronounce these words, found mostly in the South, is to pronounce Mary and marry the same and merry differently (15.84% rspondents U.S.-wide). Nearly 9% of the respondents say Mary and merry the same way, but marry differently. Finally, another 0.96% of respondents pronounce merry and marry the same and Mary differently.

Also depending on where you are from, you might say the words pin and pen the same or different. The pronunciation of the two words is merged in the South… and Bakersfield, CA. Curiously, Indianapolis merges pin/pen, but Cincinnati does not. Nearly all the South merges, but Savannah, GA does not. Mobile — yes, but New Orleans — no. And in the areas where the merger happens, you will hear people count “six, seven, eight, nine, tin”… or at least that’s what it sounds to American English speakers who don’t say it the same way.

Another interesting regional merger involves the words Don and Dawn (or cot and caught). The two words are pronounced the same in Northeastern New England, Western Pennsylvania and much of the Western half of the country (except Northern California). This western region where the merger occurs is sometimes considered to be a southward extension of the Canadian merger. Thus, someone from Wisconsin would pronounce these pairs very differently, but someone from Idaho would pronounce them exactly the same.

A couple of other more localized pronunciation peculiarities include the pronunciation of wine and whine, and of horse and hoarse. While most Americans pronounce the words in the two pairs exactly the same, there are certain regions where they are pronounced differently. For example, the map below shows the area where wine and whine are pronounced differently: the latter with a voiceless [ʍ], exactly the same way it is pronounced by the Irish and the Scots.

And the following map shows the areas where the words horse and hoarse are pronounced differently.

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