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I was puzzled when a native speaker of American English (grown up in Texas) recently told me that they would pronounce fairy and ferry the same. I would expect a "long" vowel in fairy and a "short" vowel in ferry, partly because of the double consonant in the latter.

This concept of vowel length, which is important in my mother tongue German, is foreign to that speaker and confuses them. Merriam-Webster provides two possible pronunciations for ferry, one of which is identical to the one for fairy, but their phonetic spelling doesn't seem to distinguish vowel lengths at all.

Obviously, given the heterogeneous English speaking community, there may not be one right answer at all; I'm interested in all accents and aspects.

Edit: Collins provides different pronunciations for fairy and ferry; their audio samples come closer to how I would pronounce the words.

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    It depends where you've lived in your formative years. I pronounce fairy/dairy, ferry/merry, and furry/hurry all differently with respect to the vowel sound.
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 21, 2021 at 17:15
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    @DjinTonic Indeed, the vowel sound in furry is not at all the same as hurry.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 21, 2021 at 17:25
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    OED: Brit. /ˈhʌri/, U.S. /ˈhəri/
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 21, 2021 at 17:43
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    This is called the Mary-marry-merry merger. According to a study from 2003, 57% of American English speakers pronounced Mary, marry, and merry identically.
    – Juhasz
    Oct 21, 2021 at 17:56
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    Most varieties of English do not have phonemic vowel length. We have allophonic variation in vowel length. And like other allophonic features, most speakers are unaware of its existence. Doubly confusing, we learn to read and write, we're taught about "long" and "short" vowels, but with a totally different meaning. Kids are taught the "long e" sound, which is really /i/ (as in feed) and the "short e" sound, which is /ɛ/ (as in fed). I'm not surprised that a native speaker was confused by this other sense of "long" and "short" vowels.
    – Juhasz
    Oct 21, 2021 at 19:35

2 Answers 2

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As pointed out in comments, Modern English does not have vowel length. The so-called "long vowels" are modern descendants of the Middle English long vowels, which were changed by the Great Vowel Shift into tense vowels, no longer than any other. Unfortunately, this happened after the rules of English spelling got more or less fixed.

So the original difference between fairy and ferry was long/short vowel, which changed to tense/lax after the GVS. But in American English there was a further development. The distinction between tense and lax vowels tended to neutralize before /r/. So most Americans don't distinguish between /ir/ and /Ir/ (here/hear), or between /er/ and /Er/, so ferry and fairy are exact homonyms.

This is a regional variation; in Rhode Island, for example, one distinguishes Mary, merry, and marry, each with its own vowel. But in the Midwest, where I come from, those are all homophonous.

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    Actually, here and hear are homophones even in British English. (I know you didn't say they weren't, but somebody reading your answer might infer they were.) Nov 20, 2021 at 14:58
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Modern American English does not have phonemic vowel length. Americans, in fact, pay very little attention to vowel length, so it is quite difficult for them to learn to differentiate between long and short vowels in other languages. In American English, in the dialects that still preserve the difference between fairy and ferry, the difference is in the quality of the vowel: possibly /feri/ versus /fɛri/ (although different dialects will undoubtedly vary).

While this is somewhat controversial, I believe vowel length plays a role in modern British English. For an example of this, Lexico gives the current British pronunciations of bared and bed as [bɛːd] and [bɛd], differing only by vowel length; similarly, fairy and ferry also differ only in having [ɛː] and [ɛ].

Bared and fairy used to be pronounced the diphthong /ɛə/ in British English, and some British speakers, as well as some British dictionaries, still pronounce them that way. And while [ɛː] and [ɛ] are the only two vowels I know of that dictionaries give as differing only in length, I am convinced from listening to British speakers that some dialects also use length as the major differentiation between beard and bid; and between cart and cut.

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    After turning it over in my mind's ear a few times, I got very very confused trying to compare I vary very few aspects of my diction according to who I'm conversing with, and my vowels aren't very varied anyway. It's worse than Peter Piper and that pesky pack of pickled peppers! Oct 22, 2021 at 12:47

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