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Discovered a weird bit of pronunciation distinction in friends today, between three words:

  1. lair (as in home to monster)
  2. layer (as in levels of a cake)
  3. layer (as in "one who lays things down", like a mine layer)

Unlike most of the differentiations in dialects I'm aware of (e.g. cot-caught, pin-pen), I can't find any clear information on this one (is it a merger of historically separate words, or a split of historically equivalent words?), or the geographic distribution.

For me (Maryland native from D.C. region), "lair" is a single syllable with a vowel that, while not exactly the same as the true short 'a' sound in "mat", is pretty close (just slurred a bit by the growling sound of the adjacent 'r'; it's the same way I say "air", just with a tongue flick preceding it, and rhymes with words like "there", "where", "hair", "fair", "fare", etc.), and either sense of "layer" is two syllables, where the 'a' is 100% long (as in "way"), with the second syllable being an almost standalone growling 'r' sound (sense 2 might be a little more blurred, where sense 3 is more clearly split, but they're both closer to two syllables than one when I'm not rushing), roughly rhyming (when I enunciate clearly, which I frequently don't) with "they're".

For at least one person (from Seattle), they're all homophones, all two syllables, all with a long-a sound (again, slurred a bit by the 'r'). A Vancouver, WA native (who you'd expect to have similar pronunciation to the Seattleite) agrees with me. Yet another person (from north Florida) says sense 1 and 2 are homophones with a single syllable pronounced with an almost short-a sound, while sense 3 (despite being spelled the same as sense 2) is two syllables with a clear long-a sound.

Similar patterns seem to arise with pairs like "payer" and "pair", "mayor" and "mare", etc.

My best guess is that this is related to the Mary-marry-merry merger (we're all fully merged), but that somehow, we merged towards different locations in the space, some moving towards longer 'a' sounds (and therefore making homophones with other long-a words, with syllables dropping due to similarity?), others towards shorter 'a' sounds (and therefore distinguishing from long-a words, and possibly preserving the syllable difference to enunciate the distinction).

Is there a proper description of this merge/split pattern? Is it related to Mary-marry-merry mergers, or independent of it? I assume it's another historic feature related to 'r' sounds, but I've been unable to pin it down.

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    It's a matter of regionality: for this English speaker your example 'mare' has no diphthong. Others such as 'lair' and 'pair' it might be slight but they are not hononyms of 'layer' and 'payer'. But I have heard other accents that create a diphthong from almost every vowel sound. Commented May 11, 2023 at 18:07
  • @WeatherVane: Yeah, I figured. I'm just trying to figure out if this is one of the things that has been explicitly documented in terms of historical change, and what the regional distributions are. It's mostly personal curiosity; that old dialect map that made the rounds 10-odd years ago fascinated me, and discovering a fairly significant dialect distinction in the people around me that I've never noticed (originally noticed because I claimed "unfair" could be used for assonance with other short 'a' sounds; my wife looked at me like I was crazy), and can't find information on, is maddening. Commented May 11, 2023 at 18:18
  • There's an existing question on mayor/mare but answers don't go into much detail beyond suggesting a US/UK split, with (commonly) Americans using two syllables and Brits one for "mayor".
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 18:28
  • @StuartF Hm.... as a BrE speaker it's news to me that I pronounce 'mayor' with one syllable. I thought that AmE speakers pronounce 'mare' with two -"Bring that mayer over heyere". Commented May 11, 2023 at 18:36
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    Is this the same as how some people pronounce "fire" with two syllables? It's related to vowel breaking in one way or another.
    – alphabet
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 20:47

1 Answer 1

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As Wiktionary notes, some American speakers pronounce "layer" (in either sense) and "lair" as homophones (/lɛɚ/), but others pronounce "layer" with two syllables /ˈleɪ.ɚ/. The former pronunciation will undergo the Mary-marry-merry merger but the latter will not.

So why would some people pronounce "layer" differently when it means "layer of a cake" than when it means "someone who lays"? I suspect that this has to do with the presence of a morpheme boundary; since the latter is transparently derived from "lay" (/leɪ/), the pronunciation /ˈleɪ.ɚ/ is likely to be favored over /lɛɚ/.

This leads to three possibilities:

  1. Some people always pronounce "layer" as /ˈleɪ.ɚ/ in either sense; for them it will always be distinct from "lair." The speaker from Vancouver seems to be in this category.
  2. Some people always pronounce "layer" as /lɛɚ/; for them all three are going to be homophones. The speaker from Seattle seems to be in this category.
  3. A few people, apparently, will pronounce "layer" like "lair" when it means "layer of a cake," but not when it means "a person who lays." The speaker from Florida seems to be in this category.

You seem to be somewhere between (1) and (3).

The terms "short-a" and "long-a" are rather ill-defined; without recordings or narrow phonetic transcriptions it would be hard to judge the differences in how each of these pronunciations are realized.

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    It’s a pity that Wiktionary uses such a confusing way of writing those. Writing that as /ˈlejɚ/ better represents the ambisyllabic glide found in the two-syllable version of layer, just as it does in certain but hardly all speakers’ versions of gayer, payer, mayor, higher, chaos, crayon, neon, peon, loyal, lawyer, aisle, defile.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 15:50
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    @tchrist To be fair, most dictionaries play the foolish "pretend glides are vowels at the ends of diphthongs" game. Of course, the difference between the two pronunciations may not just be the additional glide, depending on how those phonemes are realized.
    – alphabet
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 16:01

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