I am a young speaker from Chicago with, I think, a relatively nonspecific General American accent. I’ve noticed something interesting with the vowels in the NEAR and CURE sets. These vowels can be realized in a variety of ways, especially in the CURE set.
Plainly, these vowels often sound extremely similar. An interesting example is the two words “peer” and “pure”. There seems to be little phonetic difference between them. I might narrowly transcribe these words as:
Peer - [pʰijɹ̈] or [pʰiɹ̈]
Pure - [pʰjɹ̩̈] or [pʰjɚ]
Near - [nijɹ̈], [niɹ̈], [nʲijɹ̈], or [nʲiɹ̈]
Cure - [cʰjɹ̈] or [cʰjɚ]
They’re all quite similar. The only real difference may be that the NEAR words involve slightly more time and emphasis with the tongue in the palatal glide/vowel position, while the CURE words spend more time and emphasis on the rhotic phone. I wonder that if someone used the NEAR pronunciation for a word in the PURE set, I would probably not notice. I believe I do this myself quite regularly. An interesting case is “fury.” I think I often pronounce it as something like [ˈfi.ɹ̈i].
For these reasons, I wonder about the possibility of a NEAR-CURE merger for my accent of English (it might instead be named the PEER-PURE merger) - probably not a phonemic one, but an idiolectal one that occurs with some regularity in the speech of specific people.
I’ve never seen any discussion of this online. This is just my teenage intuition, so it may be of no merit. However, I’d like to hear thoughts on this vowel relation. To what extent does it exist, and where? How should it be transcribed? Is it likely to become phonemic in the future and/or is it already?
Note: The fully enunciated pronunciation of “cure” might be [cʰjʊɹ], but I think that is rather rare.