Dueling dialects

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Aug 20 04:14:53 UTC 2004

At 9:53 PM -0400 8/19/04, Wilson Gray wrote:
>While chatting with the locals down home in Texas, my brother mentioned
>that the star of a certain movie was Gary Cooper. He pronounced the
>name in the St. Louis dialect, so that it rhymed with "merry souper."
>Said locals immediately burst into peals of laughter and kept asking
>him to repeat the name so that they could laugh some more. When asked
>for the proper pronunciation, the locals responded with, approx.,
>[ge:IrI kUp@], wherein "U" is the "oo" of "Booker." Further discussion
>revealed that, though the locals had obviously noted the difference
>between their pronunciation of "Gary" and that of my brother, what had
>struck them as ridiculous beyond words was his pronunciation of the
>"oo" of Cooper as approx. [u:].
>After I had related this story to a European-American friend who wasn't
>a St. Louisan, he commented, "Well, no wonder they laughed at him.
>Everybody knows that the proper pronunciation is [gaeri]!"
>-Wilson Gray

You bring up, I believe, the issue of pre-rhotic front non-high vowel
neutralization vs. differentiation, which is certainly not constant
across European-American dialects.  As a duellist who happens to hail
from NYC, I maintain the classical 3-way distinction:  Mary [e],
merry [E], marry [ae].  -arry names like "Barry" or "Harry" (I could
never understand those "Harry"/"hairy" puns) have the [ae] vowel of
"bat".  The key (or so I've rationalized it) is the closed syllable
indicated by the geminate.  "Mary" and "Car(e)y", on the other hand,
have the "long a" that also shows up in "fairy", "hairy", etc.  And
"Perry", "Kerry", "Terry" have the open E (epsilon) of "bet" (albeit
with R coloring).  So what of Gary Cooper?  Well, he's a one-R Gary,
so he rhymes with Mary--no [ae] for him (for me).  Garry Moore, on
the other hand, in principle does get an [ae].  I know, talk about
your spelling pronunciations...

Needless to say, this description does not characterize all NYC
speakers, much less the class of European-Americans as a whole, most
of whom quite blithely merge all these pre-R vowels.  Careless of
them, but what can I say?  (Well, if I were dInIs, I would impugn
their ancestry and intelligence, but we New Yorkers are much too
polite to indulge in that sort of activity...)

l[ae]rry (not to be confused with Frank Lary [le:ry], the old
Yankee-killing Tiger pitcher)

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