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The way I pronounce these words is the same. Similarly for other words like these: I pronounce ferry and fairy the same, carrot and caret. Yet, dictionaries show different pronunciations for these words:

For example, Merriam-Webster gives:

\ˈma-rē\ for marry, \ˈmer-ē\ for merry and \ˈmā-rē\ for Mary

The American Heritage Dictionary gives:

(măr′ē) for marry, (mĕr′ē) for merry and (mâr′ē) for Mary

When I listen to the recordings, they all sound the same to me. How do you pronounce them differently? Who pronounces them this way?

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My mother's making me marry Mary Mack... –  JAM Oct 25 '12 at 19:12
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@JAM, Is Mary Mack merry to be marrying you? –  Kristina Lopez Oct 25 '12 at 19:23
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@KristinaLopez, well, I didn't say she was making me marry merry Mary Mack. BTW my name is Hairy Harry. –  JAM Oct 25 '12 at 19:39
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/'mærɪ/, /'mɛrɪ/, /'mɛərɪ/ for me. –  Matt Эллен Oct 25 '12 at 20:33
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A nice discussion dialectblog.com/2011/09/21/marry-merry-mary and Professor Wells's blog phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2010/12/… –  Alex B. Oct 26 '12 at 16:09

9 Answers 9

Interestingly, this question appeared as number 15 on the Harvard Dialect Survey, so it is possible to give a good summary of the pronunciation differences in these three words as they are spoken in the United States.

The 11,422 respondents were asked to choose from five options given the following prompt:

How do you pronounce Mary/merry/marry?

The percentages next to each choice indicate the proportion of survey participants that chose that option:

a. all 3 are the same (56.88%)
b. all 3 are different (17.34%)
c. Mary and merry are the same; marry is different (8.97%)
d. merry and marry are the same; Mary is different (0.96%)
e. Mary and marry are the same; merry is different (15.84%)

The maps that show where in the US the respondents for each answer choice were located are available here, but can be summarized by noting that mid-westerners (residents of Ohio, Illinois, etc.) seem most likely to pronounce all three the same, and New Englanders seem most likely to pronounce at least two of them differently.

As for non-US speakers, a linguistics blog post by Ryan Denzer-King claims that,

…in rhotic dialects, intervocalic resonants tend to be ambisyllabic, i.e., they are attached both to the syllable that precedes them (as a coda) and the syllable that follows them (as an onset). An /r/ in coda position tends to neutralize many if not all vowel quality distinctions in the syllable it closes, and thus in rhotic dialects, where these syllables are closed by an /r/, we get all three front vowels neutralized to the [-hi][-lo][+ATR] vowel /e/. For non-rhotic speakers, /r/ can never be in coda position, and thus this neutralization does not occur.

So it is more likely that you would hear people talk without these three sounds being merged into one in places outside of North America. This seems logical to me, but I don't know enough rhotic speakers to say if it matches my experience, and there will of course be exceptions everywhere.

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Only 17% pronounce them all differently? I'm a member of a tiny minority! I'm sure we are discriminated against in some way. BTW I grew up in New York, spent most of my life in Ohio, and now live in Michigan. –  Jay Dec 11 '13 at 18:07

If you wish to try to simulate the distinction for people who do not normally make it, I have found that it is best to illustrate it this way:

  • Marry has the same vowel as Matt or mat, so IPA /æ/.
  • Merry has the same vowel as met, so IPA /ɛ/.
  • Mary has the same vowel as mate or may, so IPA /eɪ/ or /e/, depending on just how glide-y you are feeling.

Not that almost anyone still does that, but some do. Once you have that down, you can practice saying “I’ll marry merry Mary” so that all three sound different using the schema given above.

As far as actual length goes, the vowel of the middle one is the shortest, or most clipped. J.R.R. Tolkien pronounced the name of his character Merry in this clipped fashion, but he also had the old-style r often enough.

For a living example, you can hear Larry King pronounces his own name Larry, which would rhyme with to marry, not with Mary. He indeed uses the vowel of lag, mat, hat there. It sounds really weird if it is not in your own accent, as I can myself attest.

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In New York City, at least, Mary does not have quite the same vowel as mate (although the other two are correct). But maybe this is the best way to explain it. –  Peter Shor Oct 25 '12 at 20:50
    
@PeterShor: Agreed. I have this distinction in my accent. The vowel in Mary is more like [e(ə)] than [eɪ], but not the same as the [e(j)ə] some people have for /æ/. –  Jon Purdy Oct 25 '12 at 21:05
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When I was in college, my roommates and one of their girlfriends had a big discussion about this. She proclaimed that the three were pronounced as @tchrist has suggested. For the rest of us, we pronounced them exactly the same and it was even hard for us to hear the difference when she said them. Eventually I learned to hear the difference, but I still don't pronounce them any differently unless I am recounting this story—and even then I really have to think about the words before I say them to get it right. –  Jim Oct 25 '12 at 21:17
    
@PeterShor Yes, the difference is that the following /t/ causes a bit of raising that does not occur in the /r/. It is like how tight and dyed actually have different vowels. But this is rather subtle, and takes a while to explain. –  tchrist Oct 25 '12 at 21:23
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@Mitch See the Ballad of Shameless Enjambment for a didactic moment on all that. –  tchrist Oct 26 '12 at 14:19

Cameron's excellent answer shows that most people in the US do indeed pronounce these words the same. Although I see that you are a native US English speaker, I'd thought I'd contribute the British English version.

In British English, these words typically sound distinctly different. Anecdotally, I think the difference is fairly consistent across the different regions of England at least.

Since you have already looked up phonetics for these words, I'll try and explain the difference by comparing words with similar vowel sounds that you may also pronounce differently.

Marry: Harry, carry. (Short vowel as in fat, cat.)
Merry: berry, Terry (Short vowel as in get, wet.)
Mary: hairy, fairy (Long vowel as in air, bear.)

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As another speaker of British English, I concur. –  Barrie England Oct 26 '12 at 6:26
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It's not called British English. It's English. –  Benedict Oct 26 '12 at 8:52
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@Benedict: please do not post unconstructive comments. –  Colin Fine Oct 26 '12 at 11:16
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As a speaker of semi-British English, I cannot conceive of pronouncing these words similarly. (However, it might be instructive to look at Northern Ireland: I believe that in their accent, most of the words in There's a very furry fairy on the ferry would sound similar.) –  TRiG Oct 26 '12 at 11:28
    
Well, the survey shows that 56.88% pronounce all three the same, which means that 43.12% of them maintain at least some distinction — I'm not sure if you can call that "most" (and the 17.34% who pronounce all three differently is not a tiny number either; it's more than one in six). Anyway, I can attest that the pronunciation gave above is how they are pronounced in "Indian English" too. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 27 '12 at 12:21

The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (LPD-3, Wells 2008) gives the following data for the word "marry" in American English:

  • 'meri 53%
  • 'mæri 47%

As for Mary, he gives two variants (in AmE), 'meri (main) and 'mæri (alternative).

The word "merry" has one variant in the LPD-3, 'meri (AmE).

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+1 for the use of LPD –  Zairja Oct 25 '12 at 21:26
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Since New Yorkers pronounce all three differently, there must be some other pronunciation for "Mary". –  Peter Shor Oct 25 '12 at 21:35
    
@PeterShor, not just New Yorkers, btw. In some British English dialects (e.g. RP), these words are pronounced differently - /'mærɪ/, /'mɛrɪ/, /'mɛərɪ/. –  Alex B. Oct 26 '12 at 1:01
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@tchrist:A trisyllabic Mary would be pronounced like mayor-ee, although generally the ɛə is considered a diphthong. (And note that mayor is, according to many dictionaries, now considered one syllable in British English—the first syllable of Mary, in fact. But player is still two.) –  Peter Shor Oct 27 '12 at 15:25
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No, they mean diphthong. Before 'r' was dropped from BrE, pair and mare were one syllable words, and payer and mayor were two-syllable words. After 'r' was dropped, pair and payer became homophones, and mare and mayor became homophones. You can either classify them as one-syllable diphthongs, or two-syllable words if you believe [ɛə] can't be a diphthong. Now in BrE, [ɛə] is being replaced by the long monophthong [ɛː], leaving mare and mayor homophones (mayor got phonemically reinterpreted), but payer is again two syllables, and no longer a homophone for pair. –  Peter Shor Oct 27 '12 at 15:54

As an Irish-English speaker, the three words sound distinctly different

  • MAry as in MAy(the month)
  • MArry as in MArmalade
  • MErry as in MEn

My American wife (from Virginia) can't hear the differences. She also has a friend called either 'Carrie' or 'Kerry', I've never been able to tell which, as she(my wife) pronounces both names the same even thought they are very different names to my ear.

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Marry as in Marmalade??? The Irish pronunciation of either marmalade or marry must be very different from the American, even Americans with the three-way Mary/marry/merry split. –  Peter Shor Oct 27 '12 at 14:13
    
We say marmalade like march or martini. My wife says marmalade a bit like mortal or Maurice –  Ken Oct 27 '12 at 16:27

I don't pronounce merry like the other two; not even close. As for marry and Mary, I just said, “I want to marry Mary” five times over. I might have sounded like a lovesick teen, but, more importantly, I'm convinced I don't pronounce the two words identically, although the difference is rather subtle and slight. The way I say it, marry rhymes with carry, and Mary rhymes with dairy, although that might not be of much help to someone already hearing all these words as homophones.

I'd also say those dictionary pronunciation guides are pretty accurate, at least for how I say the words.

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I've heard Mary pronounced May-Ree with some regularity but can't think of how marry and merry would be pronounced distinctly different from each other. –  Kristina Lopez Oct 25 '12 at 19:25
    
The verb and its object will be subject to differing prosody. That may be what you are hearing. –  tchrist Oct 27 '12 at 14:51

I suppose the catch to printed pronunciation guides is that they always have to relate you to some word that you already know, like "a as in past". But if you're just learning the language or have grown up with a different dialect, you may not be sure how the "base" word is supposed to be pronounced.

May I suggest thefreedictionary.com. For many merry words, they provide a little "speaker" icon that you can click to hear how the word is pronounced. Listen carefully and I think you'll see -- or rather hear -- that Mary, merry, and marry have quite distinct pronunciations of the first vowel. Carrot and caret have what (to me, anyway) is a very slight difference on the last vowel.

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There may be cases where the speaker being recorded (thinks he) pronounces two words differently, but the listener doesn't hear a difference. So, which of them is right? –  GEdgar Oct 25 '12 at 22:03
    
@GEdgar: that probably depends on what percentage of listeners hear a difference. –  Peter Shor Oct 26 '12 at 1:55
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I think most of the time, if one person hears a difference and another doesn't, the one who hears a difference is right. It's common when listening to an unfamiliar language to say, "It all sounds the same". Not so common to hear differences where none are intended. –  Jay Oct 26 '12 at 13:45
    
@Jay: It depends. I expect that most Americans think they pronounce bitter and bidder differently. Many of them don't. –  Peter Shor Dec 6 '13 at 23:43
    
@PeterShor Or you may be an example of my point: We can tell the difference, but you can't. :-) An interesting experiment in such a case would be to have person A say the two words and see if person B can identify which he is saying -- presumably just saying the words in isolation, with no surrounding sentence to give clues. If a hearer can tell them apart but you can't, then there really is a difference that is too subtle for you. If no one can tell them apart, then presumably there is no difference. –  Jay Dec 20 '13 at 15:07

In New York City, Mary, merry and marry each have a distinctive sound.

  1. Mary sound like "mare-re"
  2. Merry, you hear the "mer"
  3. Marry sounds similar to fairy. In the latter word you hear the aah sound.

Mary would be upset if you called her marry or merry. And, she certainly would not want to marry you.

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I'm from southern New Jersey, but I do not have a Jersey accent whatsoever. People tell me I don't have an accent, but rather speak in a "general American" accent? I don't know.

Anyway, I pronounce each of these words differently. Marry is Maa-ree (maa sound in mat). Merry is meh-ree (meh sound in men). Mary is mare-ee (rhymes with fairy).

Here's some more pronunciations of words in my accent:

Aunt (ant). Roof (strong on the oo, does NOT rhyme with woof). Route (root). Theater (thee-a-ter). Iron (eye-urn). Salmon (saa-mon). Caramel (caa-ra-mel). Lawyer (loy-er).

Caught (cawt). Water (wau-ter, rhymes with caught her). New Orleans (Noo Or-lenz). Pecan (puh/pee-kahn). Again (uh-gehn). Coupon (cue/coo-pon). Mayonnaise (man-aez).

Naturally (nat-trell-ee). Aluminium is spelled aluminum in American English (al-oo-min-um). Gif (gif/jif). Envelope (ahn-vel-ope).

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Most of this answer has nothing to do with the question. The bit that does is anecdotal, that is to say your opinion. Opinions can be helpful but we try to stick mainly to answers based on verifiable facts and reputable sources. –  MετάEd Oct 29 '13 at 4:10
    
@MετάEd; "How do you pronounce them differently? Who pronounces them this way?" is ambiguous and a less-than-ideal question, but you can't say this isn't an answer to it. –  TimLymington Oct 30 '13 at 21:59
    
@TimLymington Paragraphs 1 and 2 answer the question with an anecdote (not a good answer). The remaining paragraphs don't answer the question. Is that more clear? –  MετάEd Oct 30 '13 at 22:10

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