In America growing up in the Midwest, I've always heard people pronounce the word "bury" as if it were pronounced sounding the same as the word "berry".

Ever since I've noticed this many years back I've always pronounced the word "bury" as it's spelled and I think it should be pronounced but it seems no one else pronounces this word like I do.

If a man needs to bury some berries, it'd sound strange if you pronounce both words that sound the same with the "air" instead of "ur" sound.

Question(s)

I apologize for the correlated sub-questions

I'm curious what the history is behind this word and it's pronunciation in America and why so many people pronounce it sounding a different way than I do based on its spelling?

  • Maybe pronouncing "bury" that sounds like someone is saying "berry" is appropriate or proper and I say it incorrectly assuming that's the correct way to pronounce it?
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    Spelling and pronunciation only correlate in English, and often not well, eg, colonel, victuals. What you call "improper" is probably "proper" to others. See also North American English Dialects. – Knotell Mar 24 '17 at 21:12
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    Growing up in the east, "bury" and "berry" are identical for me too. I have never heard anyone pronounce "bury" as "burr-ee". – Hellion Mar 24 '17 at 21:12
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    A Northern Irish accent might pronounce bury as "burry". But then it would pronounce berry the same way. (What surprises me about this question is: "I do X but no-one else does. Why are they all wrong when I've decided I'm right?" I wonder if there's a better way to ask the question.) – Andrew Leach Mar 24 '17 at 21:19
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    If you live in Bury, England, you're likely to pronounce it "Burry" rather then "Berry" - I used to work there and had to get out of the habit of saying "Berry". – Mike C Mar 24 '17 at 22:25
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    @MagicallyDelicous: First, burr-ee is not the way anybody I've ever heard pronounces bury; it's sposta be a homophone for berry and rhyme with very, as noted. Second, pronunciation comes first, and spelling -- if any -- comes later. Third, English spelling doesn't represent correct English pronunciation; it's a very good spelling system for Middle English, last spoken around 1550. Modern English, not so much. So you have to give up the idea that spelling is primary; spelling is actually just arbitrary, and a pain to remember. Sorry about that. – John Lawler Mar 24 '17 at 23:46
up vote 4 down vote accepted

This question is based on a few misconceptions.

"Correct" is not a clearly defined concept for pronunciation. But so far as we can speak of "correct pronunciation" of English words, it's definitely not a matter of pronouncing things "as they are spelled". People generally consider it appropriate to use pronunciations that are widely used and not associated with particular stigmatized social groups, like lower-class speakers or speakers of stigmatized minority dialects.

There are many words that have a spelling that doesn't correspond to any widely used pronunciation. For example, the word friend is spelled with "ie", like the word fiend, but /friːnd/ ("freend") is not a widely used pronunciation in modern English (I have no idea if this pronunciation may exist in some obscure dialect), so it is not considered correct. The correct pronunciation of friend is instead considered to be /frɛnd/ ("frend"). So we can see that the idea of "correct pronunciation" cannot be based on spelling alone. There are other factors influencing what is considered "correct".

The pronunciation that would be expected for "bury" if it had a completely regular spelling would actually be /bjʊəri/, because there is only one R after the U (compare fury, jury and bureau).

But "bury" doesn't have a completely regular spelling. Rather, the spelling is based on weird details of its historical development. See the following note from the Etymonline entry for "bury":

The Old English -y- was a short "oo" sound, like modern French -u-. Under normal circumstances it transformed into Modern English -i- (in bridge, kiss, listen, sister, etc.), but in bury and a few other words (merry, knell) it retained a Kentish change to "e" that took place in the late Old English period. In the West Midlands, meanwhile, the Old English -y- sound persisted, slightly modified over time, giving the standard modern pronunciation of blush, much, church.

The people in the comments who say they have heard bury pronounced to rhyme with furry in an American accent may have heard someone with the with the "Merry–Murray merger". A speaker with this accent would also rhyme berry and ferry with furry.

  • Wow.... holy cow.... and over a year later, we have a technically correct answer.... at least I think but that is a lot of good detail for sure. While I don't believe I'm of the Philadelphia English dialect, for some reason for this particular word I pronounce it that way still such as "bury" as in "hurry" and no one seems to ever try to correct me but when I hear others say it as "berry" pronunciation it always sticks out to me for some reason. I suppose that's a personal thing but thank you very much regardless for your awesome answer. – Facebook May 25 at 0:17
  • Something else that is funny I've noticed with people from Gary Indiana in particular from those I've heard talk with certain words such as "there" some people pronounce it like "thur" but the only people I've heard personally talk like that have been from the Gary Indiana area.... lol – Facebook May 25 at 0:20
  • @Facebook: Interesting. With a word like "there", it might be hard to tell if the change in the pronunciation of the vowel is based on a generally applicable sound change, or a reduction that applies mainly to that one word. – sumelic May 25 at 0:26

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