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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.

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  • That's really interesting. When I say your (very well-written!) pronunciations in my mouth, I was surprised that they don't sound at all strange to me. I'm an older speaker originally from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, just to your north, so there may be some shared exposure to this.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 4:06
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    I'm a very older speaker from DeKalb, S of L. Geneva and W of Chicago, and these don't sound odd to me, either. The variation in vowels before rhotic /r/ is quite large. First, pre-/r/ vowels in AmEng neutralize the tense/lax distinction pretty thoroughly. Second, rhotic /r/ is a resonant and facilitates epenthesis, so there are folks that say Shu-were and others that say Sherr. Third, the occasional /y/ before /u/ is another locus that facilitates epenthesis, since /y/ is a resonant, too. In sum, these are the sorts of things that sociophoneticians collect. Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 14:59
  • Wait, are you saying pure and peer sound nearly the same? They aren't even close in my Californian English. Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 17:33
  • @TinfoilHat I’m saying that some speakers, sometimes, will pronounce them nearly the same, and that I am one of those speakers. I’m unsure whether this is prevalent or not.
    – Graham H.
    Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 18:47
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    @Lambie These are lexical sets. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 9:27

1 Answer 1

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This could be a case of the NURSE-NEAR merger, a phenomenon described on Wikipedia, in which both vowels become /jɜr/. Wikipedia describes this as happening in older Southern accents and as part of a broader HAIR/HERE/HER merger in some dialects of AAVE.

Alternatively, this could be related to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (see Wikipedia), which is indeed peculiar to places like Chicago. That page suggests that the shift in question has changed the "cure" vowel to /jɚ/ and the "near" vowel to /iɻ~iɚ/, though, which wouldn't make them quite identical.

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