Can you really hear the difference between words Mary, merry, marry?
Hello. Can you really hear the difference between words Mary, merry, marry? Can you recognise these three words in isolation from one another and out of context? Particularly interested in hearing the views of native speakers. Thank you.
May 14, 2018 10:12 PM
Comments · 33
In Australian English they are all different sounds if pronounced correctly. "Mary" and "merry" however are very close in their sounds, and when people draw out the vowel sound when saying something like "Merry Christmas" (as they often do) then you could say the two sounds are identical.
May 14, 2018

I'm a native speaker from Ireland- they sound different to me and I pronounce them all differently- I also pronounce all the "R"s, unlike many native speakers from the UK

Mary rhymes with hairy - same vowel sound as bear

Merry rhymes with berry - same vowel sound as bed/ten/said

Marry rhymes with Barry - same vowel sound as cat

May 16, 2018

I'm a native speaker  (Scottish) and they are all recognisable in isolation and out of context to me. They all have very different vowel sounds to my ear!

May 16, 2018
Thank you Dan, for that information and the recordings!

If your husband “truly believes they are pronounced different,” “but it's so subtle as to be unnoticeable,” the most likely explanation is that you are both right. He does indeed pronounce them differently, but people who have the merger simply cannot hear the difference. In my experience, that is the usual situation when phonemes have been lost in a merger — people with the merger cannot hear the difference.

I knew a brother and sister from NYC named Don and Dawn. When a bunch of us were hanging out, we used to call “Don” or “Dawn” from across the room, and any midwesterners present were amazed when the correct person responded every single time. They insisted they couldn’t hear any difference, but it was obvious to the rest of us.

This is true in foreign languages as well. If your native language is Spanish (or Japanese, etc.), you’re not going to hear the difference between “berry” and “very”. Non-Spanish speakers often can’t hear the difference between R and RR. Russians and the French can’t hear the difference between “bad” and bud.” To the Russian, we are pronouncing them the same even though we "claim" otherwise. Then there are the emphatic consonants in Arabic, hard and soft consonants in Russian, all the different sibilants in Polish, the tones in tonal languages…. All of this can be overcome with practice, of course.
May 15, 2018

Yes, I hear a difference between all three of them, and I pronounce all three of them differently. However, this is regional.

With regard to recognizing them out of context, I've made a Vocaroo recording of a few lines from the song:

"We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year."

I sing it three times. Once I sing it correctly. Once I sing it using the name "Mary" instead of "merry." And once I sing it using the word "marry" instead of "merry." I believe native speakers will instantly be able to identify the correct version, and will be able to say which word is used in which version.

The pronunciations of "Mary," "merry," and "marry" is one of the questions used by this amazing New York Times demonstration:

(If you are a native US speaker you can answer their 25 questions, and it shows which parts of the country have the pattern of answers most closely resembling yours--and it often pinpoints where you are from, with amazing accuracy).

To me, "marry" has the same "a" sound as "bat" or "mat," and rhymes with "Larry," "Harry," and "parry."

"Merry" has the same "e" sound as "bet" or "wet" or "set" and rhymes with "berry," "very," and "Terry."

"Mary" is not quite the same, but close to, the "a" sound in "hay," "way," and "say," and almost rhymes with "dairy," "wary," and "nary."

"Mary" and "merry" are close, but not the same. However, people can and do make puns on the two words. 

For example:

"Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"


"Mary who?"

"Merry Christmas!"

May 15, 2018
Show more