English-language vowel changes before historic /r/

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In English, many vowel shifts affect only vowels followed by /r/ in rhotic dialects, or vowels that were historically followed by /r/ that has been elided in non-rhotic dialects. Most of them involve the merging of vowel distinctions and so fewer vowel phonemes occur before /r/ than in other positions of 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, it 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 so most English dialects have fewer vowel distinctions before historical /r/ than in other positions of 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 if /r/ appears between vowels of different syllables. 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, those distinctions are most likely to occur in New York City, Philadelphia, some of Eastern New England (including Boston), and in conservative Southern accents.) In many dialects, however, the number of contrasts in that position tends to be reduced, and the tendency seems to be towards further reduction. The difference in how the 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 even though there is often no /r/ phoneme present. That 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] in which 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 it 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 that cannot be said of rhotic British accents like Scottish English, which is firmly rhotic but has many varieties with the same vowel contrasts before /r/ as before any other consonant.

Mergers before intervocalic R[edit]

Most North American English dialects merge the lax vowels with the tense vowels before /r/ and so "marry" and "merry" 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" as well as that found in the second syllable of "letter". 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[edit]

The hurryfurry merger occurs when the vowel /ʌ/ before intervocalic /r/ is merged with /ɜ/. That is particularly a feature in many dialects of North American English but not New York City English, Mid-Atlantic American English, older Southern American English, some speakers of Eastern New England English,[2] and speakers of Southeastern New England English. Speakers with the merger pronounce hurry to rhyme with furry and turret to rhyme with stir it. To occur, the merger requires the nurse mergers to be in full effect, which is the case outside the British Isles. In Scotland, hurry /ˈhʌre/ is a perfect rhyme of furry /ˈfʌre/, but there is no merger since the vowel /ɜ/ has never developed because of the lack of nurse mergers. That means that STRUT, DRESS and KIT can all occur before both intervocalic and coda /r/ and so fur, fern, and fir have distinct vowels: /fʌr, fɛrn, fɪr/.

Dialects in England, Wales, and most others outside North America maintain the distinction between both sounds and so hurry and furry do not rhyme.[2] However, in dialects without the foot-strut split, hurry has an entirely different vowel: /ˈhʊri/ (in a number of those dialects, a square-nurse merger is in effect instead).

General American has a three-way merger between the first vowels in hurry and furry and the unstressed vowel in letters. In Received Pronunciation, all of them have different sounds (/ʌ/, /ɜː/ and /ə/, respectively), and some minimal pairs exist between unstressed /ɜː/ and /ə/, such as foreword /ˈfɔːwɜːd/ vs. forward /ˈfɔːwəd/. In General American, they collapse to [ˈfɔrwɚd], but in phonemic transcription, they can still be differentiated as /ˈfɔrwɜrd/ and /ˈfɔrwərd/ to facilitate comparisons with other accents. General American also 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 the 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 and especially when it is spelled ⟨er⟩. Thus, boarded and bordered might be distinguished as /ˈbɔːdəd/ and /ˈbɔːdɜːd/, which is homophonous in Australian English as /ˈbɔːdəd/ and distinguished in Received Pronunciation as /ˈbɔːdɪd/ and /ˈbɔːdəd/, based on the length and the 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/ /ʊr/ /ɜr/ IPA
currier courier /ˈkɜriər/
furrier (n.) Fourier furrier (adj.) /ˈfɜriər/

Marymarrymerry merger[edit]

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

  • The full Marymarrymerry merger (also known, in this context, as the three-way merger) is found throughout much of the United States (particularly the Western and Central United States) 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, also known as a three-way contrast, exists in North America 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 American English speakers overall.[7]
  • The Marymarry merger is found alone, with 16% of American English speakers overall, particularly in the Northeast.[7]
  • The Marymerry merger is found alone among Anglophones in Montreal and in the American South, with 9% of American English speakers overall, particularly in the East.[7][9]
  • The merry–marry merger is found alone rarely, with about 1% of American English speakers.

In accents without 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 Received Pronunciation, they are pronounced as [ˈmɛːɹi], [ˈmaɹi], and [ˈmɛɹi]; in Australian English, as [ˈmeːɹiː], [ˈmæɹiː ~ ˈmaɹiː], and [ˈmeɹiː]; in New York City English, as [ˈmeɹi⁓ˈmɛəɹi], [ˈmæɹi], and [ˈmɛɹi]; and in Philadelphia English, the same as New York City 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, and the quality of the merged vowel is then [] (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 /ˈmeəriː/) can be [ˈmiəɹiː] or [ˈmiːɹiː] instead. In all of those cases, there is a clear distinction between Mary and merry (regardless of how both are pronounced) and marry /ˈmɛriː/ (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
dairy - Derry ˈdɛri
fairy - ferry ˈfɛri
- Farrell feral ˈfɛrəl with weak-vowel merger before /l/
Gary1 Gary2 - ˈɡɛri
hairy Harry - ˈhɛri
haring - herring ˈhɛrɪŋ
- Harold herald ˈhɛrəld
Mary marry merry ˈmɛri
- parish perish ˈpɛrɪʃ
- parry Perry ˈpɛri
Pharaoh farrow - ˈfɛroʊ
scary - skerry ˈskɛri
Tara - Terra ˈtɛrə
Tara - terror ˈtɛrə non-rhotic
- tarry Terry ˈtɛri
tearable - terrible ˈtɛrəbəl with weak-vowel merger before /b/
vary - very ˈvɛri

MerryMurray merger[edit]

The merryMurray merger is a merger of /ɛ/ and /ʌ/ before /r/. That is common in the Philadelphia accent,[11] which does not usually have the marrymerry merger, but its "short a" /æ/, as in marry, is a distinct unmerged class before /r/. Therefore, merry and Murray are pronounced the same, but marry is pronounced differently.

Homophonous pairs
/ɛr/ /ʌr/ IPA Notes
ferrier furrier (n.) ˈfʌriər
Kerry curry ˈkʌri
merry Murray ˈmʌri
skerry scurry ˈskʌri

Mirrornearer and /ʊr/–/uːr/ mergers[edit]

The mergers of /ɪr/ and /iːr/ (as in mirror and nearer, or Sirius and serious, respectively) and /ʊr/–/uːr/ occur in North American English as a part of pre-/r/ laxing, together with Mary–merry merger and the horse–hoarse merger in most dialects with the first two mergers. The phonetic outcome of the first merger is either a lax vowel [ɪ], or a somewhat raised vowel that approaches the monophthongal allophone of FLEECE: [i̞], often diphthongal as [ɪə ~ iə]. In the case of the /ʊr/–/uːr/ merger, it tends to approach the monophthongal variant of GOOSE: [ʊ̝].[12]

The mirrornearer merger is absent from traditional, local, or non-standard accents of the Southern and Eastern United States, where nearer is pronounced with a tense monophthong [i] or a centering diphthong [iə ~ ɪə] (phonemicized as /i/ or /ɪə/, depending on whether the accent is rhotic or not), whereas mirror has a lax monophthong [ɪ].[13]

In the case of the first merger, only a handful of minimal pairs (e.g. cirrusserous and Siriusserious) illustrate the contrast, in addition to morphologically distinct pairs (e.g.spiritspear it), all of which are rendered homophonous by the merger. Indeed, the amount of the words containing /ɪr/ is itself low. No minimal pairs exist for the /ʊr/–/uːr/ merger, due to the extreme scarcity of the /ʊr/ sequence in dialects of English with the foot–strut split (furthermore, the hurry–furry merger that occurs in most varieties of North American English results in a merger of /ʌr/ with /ɜr/, removing almost any trace of the historical FOOT vowel in this position). Instead, it is a simple replacement of one phoneme with another, so that the word tour /tʊr/ is perceived to contain the FOOT vowel, rather than the GOOSE vowel. However, this change may not hold where morpheme boundaries apply, allowing a qualitative distinction to be maintained between the stressed vowels in tourist /ˈtʊrəst/ (a fairly close back monophthong of variable height) on the one hand and two-wrist /ˈturɪst/ (a fully close monophthong in free variation with a narrow closing diphthong) on the other hand (cf. traditional RP /ˈtʊərɪst, ˈtuːrɪst/). The same applies to the mirrornearer merger, which laxes the vowel in clearing /ˈklɪrɪŋ/ but not in key ring /ˈkirɪŋ/, cf. RP /ˈklɪərɪŋ, ˈkiːrɪŋ/. Certain words are pronounced as if they contained a morpheme boundary before /r/, notably hero /ˈhiroʊ/ and zero /ˈziroʊ/.[14]

Some words originally containing the /uːr/ sequence are merged with either FORCE (see cure–force merger) or, more rarely, NURSE (see cure–nurse merger) instead of FOOT + /r/.[15]

The mirrornearer and /ʊr/–/uːr/ mergers are not to be confused with the fleecenear and goosecure mergers that occur in some non-rhotic dialects before a sounded /r/ and which do not involve the lax vowels /ɪ/ and /ʊ/.[clarification needed][citation needed]

Mergers of /ɒr/ and /ɔr/[edit]

Words with 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 them are pronounced with [-ɔr-], as in cord. In the accents of Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, and the Carolinas (and traditionally throughout the whole South), those words are pronounced by some with [-ɑr-], as in card and so merge with historic prevocalic /ɑr/ in words like starry. In New York City, Long Island, and the nearby parts New Jersey, those words are pronounced with [ɒr], like in Received Pronunciation. However, the sound is met with hypercorrection of /ɑr/ and so still merges with the historic prevocalic /ɑr/ in starry.[16]

On the other hand, the traditional Eastern New England accents (famously those of Rhode Island and Boston), the words are pronounced with [-ɒr-], but [ɒ] is a free vowel because of the cot–caught merger. In that regard, it is the same as Canadian /ɒ/, rather than Received Pronunciation /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 five words in the left-hand column are typically pronounced with [-ɑr-],[17] 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/. Therefore, 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.

In the varieties of Scottish English with the cot-caught merger, the vowel is pronounced towards the [ɔ] of caught and north. It remains distinct from the [o] of force and goat because of the lack of the horse-hoarse merger.

Distribution of /ɒr/ and prevocalic /ɔːr/ by dialect
Metropolitan New
, Philadelphia,
some Southern US,
some New England
Only borrow, sorrow, sorry, (to)morrow /ɒr/ /ɑːr/ /ɒr/ or /ɑːr/ /ɔːr/
Forest, Florida, historic, moral, porridge, 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 of the coastal South), 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.

Homophonous pairs
/ɒr/ /ˈɔːr/ IPA Notes
coral choral ˈkɔːrəl in General American and Canadian English

Mergers before historic postvocalic R[edit]

/aʊr/–/aʊər/ merger[edit]

The Middle English merger of the vowels with the spellings ⟨our⟩ and ⟨ower⟩ affects all modern varieties of English and causes words like sour and hour, which originally had one syllable, to have two syllables and so to 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 and so makes it pronounced like higher, and coir gains a syllable and so makes it pronounced like coyer.[18]

Card–cord merger[edit]

The cardcord merger, or cordcard merger, is a merger of Early Modern English [ɑr] with [ɒr], which results in the 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 West Country accents in England, and in some accents of Southern American English.[19][20] 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.[21] 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 between them. [21]

Homophonous pairs
/ɑːr/ /ɒr/ IPA Notes
arc orc ˈɑːrk
are or ˈɑːr
ark orc ˈɑːrk
bark bork ˈbɑːrk
barn born ˈbɑːrn
car cor ˈkɑːr
card chord ˈkɑːrd
card cord ˈkɑːrd
carn corn ˈkɑːrn
carnie corny ˈkɑːrni
dark dork ˈdɑːrk
darn dorn ˈdɑːrn
far for ˈfɑːr
farm form ˈfɑːrm
farty forty ˈfɑːrti
lard lord ˈlɑːrd
mart Mort ˈmɑːrt
Marty Morty ˈmɑːrti
spark spork ˈspɑːrk
stark stork ˈstɑːrk
tar tor ˈtɑːr
tart tort ˈtɑːrt

Cure–force merger[edit]

In Modern English, the reflexes of Early Modern English /uːr/ and /iur/ are highly susceptible to phonemic mergers 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 Received Pronunciation /ʊə/ (/ʊər/ before a vowel) and General American /ʊr/.[22] However, those pronunciations are being replaced by other pronunciations in many accents.

In Southern England, cure words are often pronounced with /ɔː/ and so moor is often pronounced /mɔː/, tour /tɔː/, and poor /pɔː/.[23] 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] and [or][ɔr], depending on whether or not the accent is rhotic.[24][25] 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."[26]

In Australian and New Zealand English, the centering 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).[27] The outcome that occurs in a particular word is not always predictable although, 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[edit]

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 the accents that merge cure and fir include /pjɜː(r)/ pure, /ˈk(j)ɜːriəs/ curious, /ˈb(j)ɜːroʊ/ bureau and /ˈm(j)ɜːrəl/ mural.[28]

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 [edit]

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.[29]

/aɪə//aʊə//ɑː/ merger[edit]

Some accents of southern British English, including many types of Received Pronunciation and in Norwich, have mergers of the vowels in words like tire, tar (which already merged with /ɑː/, as in palm), and tower. Thus, the triphthong /aʊə/ of tower merges with the /aɪə/ of tire (both surface as diphthongal [ɑə]) or with the /ɑː/ of tar. Some speakers merge all three sounds and so tower, tire, and tar are all pronounced [tɑː].[30]

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[edit]

The horsehoarse merger, or north–force merger, is the merger of the vowels /ɔː/ and /oʊ/ before historic /r/, which makes word pairs like horsehoarse, forfour, warwore, oroar, morningmourning pronounced the same. Historically, the NORTH class belonged to the /ɒ/ phoneme (as in contemporary Received Pronunciation lot), but the FORCE class was /oː/ (as in Scottish English go), which is similar 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 phonemes were historically separate. In accents with the merger, horse and hoarse are 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] 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, modern Southern American, Indian, Irish, and older Maine accents.[31][32] Some American speakers retain the original length distinction (with NORTH being pronounced with a vowel that is as short as LOT in Received Pronunciation) but merge the quality. Therefore, hoarse [hɔːrs] is pronounced longer than horse [hɔrs].[33]

The distinction was once present in the speech of southern England, the NORTH vowel being sounded as /ɔː/ and the FORCE vowel as the centring diphthong /ɔə/;[34] for many speakers, however, as noted by Henry Sweet, this contrast had by 1890 become constricted to word-final positions in which the following word did not begin with a vowel ('horse' and 'hoarse' had thus become homophonous, as did 'aurochs' and 'oar ox' but not 'morceau' and 'more so').[35] In his 1918 Outline of English Phonetics, Daniel Jones describes the distinction as optional, but he still considers it to be frequently heard in 1962;[36][37] the two vowels are differentiated in the first (1884–1928) and second (1989) editions of the Oxford English Dictionary with the caveat that in most varieties of southern British pronunciation the two have become identical;[38][39] no distinction is drawn in the third edition,[40] as well as in most modern British dictionaries (Chambers being a notable exception). According to John C. Wells, the distinction is by now obsolete in RP.[34]

In British English dialectology, prevocalic /ɒr/ in accents that distinguish cot and caught is analyzed as LOT + /r/, not NORTH since the non-rhotic dialects that have maintained the distinction feature two vowels corresponding 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 Received Pronunciation) and so moral and oral do not rhyme: /ˈmɒrəl, ˈɔːrəl/ (warring, however, was once /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 and so merged with THOUGHT: /ˈwɔː/, which gave 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/, which is restricted to compound words) because of the derived forms such as warring /ˈwɔːrɪŋ/ (compare the wholly-holy split, which results in creation of a separate /ɒʊ/ phoneme before coda /l/). However, the change did not affect all derived forms, such as warrior /ˈwɒriə/.

The distinction between intervocalic /ɒr/ and /ɔːr/, both of which are distinct from /ɑːr/ as in starry, is stable and affects also Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English and 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/), but 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 Received Pronunciation), as 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/ (those accents lack the toe–tow merger), but in the West Midlands, it corresponds to GOAT + COMMA: /ˈfʌʊəs/ or a separate /oə/ phoneme: /ˈfoəs/. The words belonging 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.[41][42]

The Cockney English distinction between /oː/ and /ɔə/ is not related to the NORTHFORCE distinction, which does not exist in that dialect. Instead, the THOUGHT split 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 to be robustly present in the speech of Vermont, northern and western New York State, Virginia, central and southern West Virginia, and North Carolina[43] as well as the whole Atlantic coast (North and South).[21] However, by the 1990s, telephone surveys conducted by Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006) show those areas as having completely or almost completely undergone the merger.[44] Even in areas in which the distinction is still made, the acoustic difference between the [ɔɹ] of horse and the [oɹ] of hoarse was found to be rather small for many speakers.[21] In the 2006 study, most white participants in only these American cities still resisted the merger: Wilmington, North Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and Portland, Maine.[45] A 2013 study of Portland, however, found the merger to have been established "at all age levels".[46] In the 2006 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 still maintained the distinction. The same pattern (a horsehoarse distinction and 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. Black Americans are rapidly undergoing the merger but are also less likely to do so than white Americans, with a little over half of the 2006 study's black participants maintaining the merger nationwide.[47]

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, /m p b f v w (ʍ)/, as force itself.
  • In past participles in -orn whose corresponding past tense forms are in -ore, as in torn.
  • in vowels ending with a silent e, as in horde.
  • derived from a word where the long vowel spelling is used
Less obvious horsehoarse distinctions
Horse class Hoarse class
Andorra, border, born, California, corpse, cyborg, endorse, forceps, fork, form, fortress, forty, gorge, gorse, important, morgue, morning, morse, morsel, Norse, porn, remorse, sorcerer, spork, torque, 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 with lot-cloth split
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[48] ˈhɔːs non-rhotic with lot-cloth split
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)
oral aural ˈɔːrəl
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)
torus Taurus ˈtɔːrəs
wore war ˈwɔː(r)
worn warn ˈwɔː(r)n
yore yaw ˈjɔː non-rhotic

Near–square merger[edit]

The near–square merger or cheerchair merger is the merger of the Early Modern English sequences /iːr/ and /ɛːr/, as well as the /eːr/ between them, and is found in some accents of Modern English. Many speakers in New Zealand[49][50][51] merge them towards the NEAR vowel, but some speakers in East Anglia and South Carolina merge them towards the SQUARE vowel.[52] The merger is widespread in Caribbean English, including Jamaican English.

Homophonous pairs
/ɪə(r)/ /eə(r)/ IPA Notes
beard Baird ˈbɪə(r)d
beard bared ˈbɪə(r)d
beer bare ˈbɪə(r)
beer bear ˈbɪə(r)
cheer chair ˈtʃɪə(r)
clear Claire ˈklɪə(r)
dear dare ˈdɪə(r)
deer dare ˈdɪə(r)
ear air ˈɪə(r)
ear ere ˈɪə(r)
ear heir ˈɪə(r)
fear fair ˈfɪə(r)
fear fare ˈfɪə(r)
fleer flair ˈflɪə(r)
fleer flare ˈflɪə(r)
hear hair ˈhɪə(r)
hear hare ˈhɪə(r)
here hair ˈhɪə(r)
here hare ˈhɪə(r)
leer lair ˈlɪə(r)
leered laird ˈlɪə(r)d
mere mare ˈmɪə(r)
near nare ˈnɪə(r)
peer pair ˈpɪə(r)
peer pare ˈpɪə(r)
peer pear ˈpɪə(r)
pier pair ˈpɪə(r)
pier pare ˈpɪə(r)
pier pear ˈpɪə(r)
rear rare ˈrɪə(r)
shear share ˈʃɪə(r)
sheer share ˈʃɪə(r)
sneer snare ˈsnɪə(r)
spear spare ˈspɪə(r)
tear (weep) tare ˈtɪə(r)
tear (weep) tear (rip) ˈtɪə(r)
tier tare ˈtɪə(r)
tier tear (rip) ˈtɪə(r)
weary wary ˈwɪəri
weir ware ˈwɪə(r)
weir wear ˈwɪə(r)
we're ware ˈwɪə(r)
we're wear ˈwɪə(r)

Nurse mergers[edit]

The fern–fir–fur merger is the merger of as many as five Middle English vowels /ɛ, ɪ, ʊ, ɜ, ə/ into one vowel when 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, in which /ɪ/ and /ə/ belong to the same phoneme and so /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.[53] 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 in Ireland, 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 pronounced differently in those traditional varieties: 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 then pronounced as /ɛ/.[citation needed] 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, and both variants of NURSE are 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
- - bird burred ˈbɜː(r)d
Bertie - birdie - ˈbɜː(r)ɾi With flapping.
berth - birth - ˈbɜː(r)θ
- earn - urn ˈɜː(r)n
Ernest earnest - - ˈɜː(r)nɪst
Ferd - - furred ˈfɜː(r)d
herd heard - Hurd ˈhɜː(r)d
herl - - hurl ˈhɜː(r)l
- Hearst - hurst ˈhɜː(r)st
- - fir fur ˈfɜː(r)
hertz; Hertz - - hurts ˈhɜː(r)ts
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[edit]

Some older Southern American English varieties and some of England's West Country dialects have a partial merger of nurse-near. They generally pronounce near as /jɜr/, which rhymes with nurse (compare general English realisations of cue and coo). Words such as beard are then pronounced as /bjɜrd/.[57] 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, which then results in a merger with nurse: /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 pronounced the same as the strong pronunciation of her.[58]

Nurse–north merger[edit]

The nurse–north merger (words like perk being pronounced like pork) involves the merger of /ɜː/ with /ɔː/ and occurs in broadest Geordie.[59]

Some THOUGHT words (roughly those spelled with a) have a distinct [] vowel in broad Geordie.[60] Therefore, the merger involves only some of the words corresponding to historical /ɔː/ in Received Pronunciation.

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[edit]

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 like the Liverpool, the newer Dublin, and Belfast accents.[61] The phonemes are merged to [ɛː] in Kingston-upon-Hull and Middlesbrough.[62][63][64]

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/.[65]

The merger is found in some varieties of African American Vernacular English and is pronounced IPA: [ɜɹ]: "A recent development reported for some AAE (in Memphis, but likely found elsewhere)."[66] This is exemplified in Chingy's song "Right Thurr", in which the merger is spelled in the title.

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

Homophonous pairs
/ɛə(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)
fairy furry ˈfɜːri
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[edit]

Sound samples[edit]

  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. 199–203, 211–12, 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), pp. 153–54, 162–63, 242–43, 479, 481, 484.
  13. ^ Wells (1982), p. 481.
  14. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 138, 153–54, 162–63, 201, 244, 480–82.
  15. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 162–64, 484.
  16. ^ Labov, William (2006). The Social Stratification of English in New York City (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 29.
  17. ^ Shitara (1993).
  18. ^ "Guide to Pronunciation" (PDF). Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 21, 2015.
  19. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 51–53.
  20. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 158, 160, 347, 483, 548, 576–77, 582, 587.
  21. ^ a b c d Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 51.
  22. ^ "Cure (AmE)". Merriam-Webster."Cure (AmE)". Dictionary.com.
  23. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 56, 65–66, 164, 237, 287–88.
  24. ^ Kenyon (1951), pp. 233–34.
  25. ^ Wells (1982), p. 549.
  26. ^ "Guide to Pronunciation" (PDF). Merriam-Webster.com.
  27. ^ "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.
  28. ^ Hammond (1999), p. 52.
  29. ^ Kurath & McDavid (1961), p. 122.
  30. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 238–42, 286, 292–93, 339.
  31. ^ "Chapter 8: Nearly completed mergers". Macquarie University. Archived from the original on July 19, 2006.
  32. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 159–61, 234–36, 287, 408, 421, 483, 549–50, 557, 579, 626.
  33. ^ Wells (1982), p. 483.
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