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I was reading a book¹ recently where the main protagonist is fixated on homonyms and has rules that proper nouns are not homonyms and gives Harold and herald as an example of words that sound the same but are not homonyms.

As an English speaker from the South of England this completely threw me as I just can’t imagine how those two words could be pronounced the same. Can any US English speakers enlighten me on how this can be?

For me they have two divergent vowel sounds and different stress: I pronounce Harold as “hah-ROlled” and herald as “heh-rALd”.

The book also said that haul and hall do ɴᴏᴛ sound the same, which I find equally baffling. How can “haul” and “hall” ever be pronounced differently?


Footnotes

  1. The book is Rain Reign by Ann M Martin. Its author seems to be from New York if that helps.
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  • 3
    '[W]ords that sound the same but are not homonyms' has me baffled. Dec 2, 2021 at 15:21
  • 1
    @Lambie what is the distinction? I pronounce them exactly the same.
    – Casey
    Dec 2, 2021 at 15:54
  • 2
    @Lambie By the extent to which it is “obvious” to both sides that it is or isn’t a homophone I would guess this is a regional distinction.
    – Casey
    Dec 2, 2021 at 16:41
  • 1
    The question would be improved by showing your results from looking in some dictionaries.
    – GEdgar
    Dec 2, 2021 at 17:06
  • 1
    @rhetorician Because you did not use IPA, nobody can understand what you meant by those pronunciations. Please revise.
    – tchrist
    Dec 3, 2021 at 15:32

2 Answers 2

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Pretty simple. I would pronounce both words ˈhɛɹəld.

Wiktionary confirms this and even lists the two words as homophones. It has audio so you can hear what it sounds like too.

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  • New Englander here, and I pronounce them differently. Where are you from?
    – user888379
    Dec 2, 2021 at 15:59
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    @user888379 I grew up in Connecticut so I guess you’ll have to be more specific about “New England.”
    – Casey
    Dec 2, 2021 at 16:02
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    @user888379 I lived in the South Shore for 8 years and only just recently moved away. Honestly it never even occurred to me that someone might pronounce them differently. What is the difference?
    – Casey
    Dec 2, 2021 at 16:09
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    +1 They are the same to me. I grew up in Colorado. The New Oxford American Dictionary shows both as | ˈhɛrəld |
    – GEdgar
    Dec 2, 2021 at 16:55
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    According to the 2003 Harvard Dialect Study, 57% of Americans display the mary-mery-marry merger, which is what causes the first vowel in Harold and herald to sound the same. Personally, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I was well into my 20s before I realized it was even possible to pronounce these words differently.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 2, 2021 at 17:24
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First, notice how most American speakers also rhyme Harold and herald with Gerald, caroled, imperiled, and double-barreled. This happens because for most speakers of American English, stressed vowels before R lose the tense–lax distinction that exists in words with those vowels that don't have an R following them.

So even though the vowel phonemes in heck and hat and hate all clearly differ from one another, as soon as you go replacing the final consonant with R in each word, those vowels suddenly stop contrasting. Just which final vowel those all collapse into varies by speaker and listener. Some have only a tense vowel there, which yields [ˈheɹəld]; others have only a lax vowel instead, which yields [ˈhɛɹəld].

The same forces are at work in hero as to whether the vowel before the R is the tense one of peek or the lax one of pick. Under tense–lax neutralization, it simply doesn't matter because those two phonemes are no longer distinguished in that position.

See the Wikipedia article on English-language vowel changes before historic /r/ for far more than everything you ever wanted to know about this truly voluminously lengthy area of study.

Second, the vowel in those two words’ second syllables is fully neutralized into a schwa because it isn’t in a stressed syllable. It doesn’t matter whether if stressed it would have been the vowel from called or the vowel from old; it’s always just schwa when unstressed.

Finally, I can’t tell you why your writer claimed haul and hall are pronounced differently, since as far as a I know, both are [hɔl]. The one that’s different from haul is howl, since the latter rhymes with owl.

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