December 16, 2019

The HURRY-FURRY merger

If you've spent your whole life only speaking one dialect, it can be utterly mind-blowing to know that there are dialects out there that make totally different distinctions that you were not even aware were possible. I speak a mostly uninteresting variety of General American that mostly corresponds to that hegemonic variety you find on television, with a few minor diversions from it. Learning about different mergers and sound changes that happened in English is one of my favorite parts, and I'd like to share some fun accidents of English language history with you all.

Today let's take a look at something that I am sure my American visitors and English visitors will diverge sharply on, and that is whether the words "hurry" and "furry" rhyme. The majority of my American visitors will likely say that they do rhyme, while my English visitors will say there is no way they could rhyme. (I count myself among the former.)

Canadian readers will likely side with the Americans on this one, while Australian and New Zealand readers may side with our English and British readers. If you're from South Africa, Nigeria, India, Singapore, or any other part of the world where English is spoken as a national language in addition to another language, I would like to hear how you treat these two words!

Americans and Canadians may ask, "how can you pronounce these two differently?" And the answer is that "hurry" will be pronounced with an 'uh'[ʌ] vowel instead of an 'er' vowel. Imagine saying 'huh' and then 're' afterwards, and you will approximate how 'hurry' sounds in those dialects: [hʌri]. In broad North American English, they will instead collapse into an 'err' sound.

If you'd like a comparison of how these two sound, listen to these clips. The first one is from a speaker who says 'huh-ry'.


A h[ʌ]rry up affair

The second one is from a speaker who says 'herr-y.'


A h[ɝ]rry up affair

How to tell HURRY and FURRY words apart

'Hurry' is not the only word that has this pronunciation. 'Murray,' 'courage', 'worry', 'turret', 'curry', are just some of the examples of words that have the 'uh' + 'r' sequence in them. You'll notice that these are all multisyllable words. That's in English phonology, 'uh' /ʌ/ is a 'checked vowel' and cannot appear stressed at the end of a word. (Depending on whether you consider the 'uh' in strut and the 'uh' in comma to be the same vowel, the explanation for this varies. Take this as a sort of broad explanation that will work for most cases as opposed to a definitive phonological theory that is valid for every single variety of English.)

Meanwhile, words with 'er' /ɜr/ can be one-syllable words: fur, her, nerd, word. And if you add a suffix to them, the 'er' doesn't change: fur-ry [fɜri], nerd-y, word-y.

So if you're a North American who is distressed to find out that their English accent impersonation is subpar due to missing this essential distinction, how can you learn to distinguish them? English spelling can give us clues. One hint that a word might be an 'uh' /ʌ/ word is that it is spelled with a '(o)ur(r)' and has a vowel after it. If we know our multisyllable rule, we know that a hypothetical word 'lur' cannot be a candidate for being an 'uh' word, but a word 'lurry' might.

You can also remember that 'er' words don't become 'uh' words if you add suffixes to them - if you recognize that a word like 'furry' comes from 'fur', which has an 'er' sound, you'll realize that even though it has the 'urr' spelling, it's not an 'uh' /ʌ/ word.

When it comes to phonological rules, though, English likes to throw exceptions at us. For example, you may expect the word 'furrier' meaning 'a person who sells furs' to be an 'uh' word. But it is actually pronounced 'fuh-rier' [fʌriər], even though it comes from 'fur.' To make it more confusing, the word 'furrier' [fɜriər] which means 'more furry' is actually an 'er' word!

The unfortunate reality is that although looking at spelling helps, in the long run you simply have to memorize the 'uh r' words if you did not grow up hearing them.

Meanwhile, if you're from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, or any other non-North American English speaking area, and you want to imitate a General American accent, your task is simpler. Just replace all 'uhr + vowel' words with 'err' and you're set! Make sure you use a rhotic 'err'.

Not all American dialects have this merger. Older dialects of New York Metropolitan English, Boston English, and Coastal Southern American English may have the distinction. Keep this in mind if you're doing an older American actor or a period piece from earlier in the century. And there are more conservative General American dialects that keep the distinction, too. Just consider the age and period of the character and piece.

Why did this merger happen?

Let's take a look at the dialects that have the HURRY-FURRY distinction:

  • Most (all?) English English dialects
  • Scottish English
  • Irish English
  • Australian English
  • New Zealand English
  • At least some varieties of Indian English
  • Conservative New York English
  • Conservative new England English
  • Conservative Coastal Southern English
  • Conservative General American

And the dialects that have the merger...

  • Most General American
  • Most Canadian English
  • Inland Southern American English
  • Western and California English
  • Midwest English

The dialects that do not have the merger are non-rhotic (majority of English English dialects, Australian/New Zealand English, conservative New York/New England/Coastal American), and the rhotic ones either do not have r-colored vowels (Scottish English and Indian English) or have very lightly r-colored vowels (General American English, Irish English). R-coloring is when a vowel is pronounced seemingly at the same time as an 'r' sound, with the 'r' appearing at the end. Meanwhile, dialects with the merger have noticeable r-coloring on vowels.

R-coloring causes vowels to trend towards sound like 'er' [ɝ]. In dialects that have strong 'r' coloring, there are a lot of mergers that happen before 'r's that do not happen in other dialects (another example marry-merry-mary merger and 'cure' sounding like 'kyer').

The 'r' itself isn't the problem - Scottish and Irish English are rhotic accents that preserve the distinction. The problem is the nature of the 'r', and how that 'r' ends up strongly attached to other vowels. It's also hard to make a lot of fine-grained distinctions when you have strong 'r' coloring - try it yourself, combining vowels with an 'r'. In a sense, r-coloring is contagious!

What are some examples of this sound in the wild?

Because the HURRY-FURRY distinction was still relatively common at the beginning of the century, when sound recording was beginning to take off, we can find some early examples of HURRY-FURRY distinction in Americans.

From 1933, Brooklyn-born singer/actor Mae West gives us one of our earliest examples in her song 'A Guy What Takes His Time':


A h[ʌ]rry up affair

In 1953, South Carolina's Eartha Kitt gives us another 'huhry' example:


So h[ʌ]rry down the chimney tonight

A male ensemble member in the track 'Orphan in the Snow' from the musical Celebration (1969) gives us 'huhry' as well:


So huhry huhry huhry huhry huhry little orphan boy

Finding 21st century examples of American youths saying 'huhry' is more challenging. The closest I've ever found is the way Meghan Trainor, who is from New England, says 'encourage' in her song "No." But she doesn't use this pronunciation on other 'uhr' words like 'worry', and perhaps it's really just an 'eur' instead?


How you let your friends enc[ʌ]rage (?) you

Yeah my mama she told me don't w[ɝ]rry about your size

Finding examples of English English speakers with the distinction is easier. Listen to how Prince Charles says 'encouragement':


Fun fact - there are actually not as many 'ehry' words as I would have expected, and I had a harder time finding examples of 'furry' or other 'er' + vowel words. Thankfully, my search results found that there is a British community of 'furries' on YouTube, which is useful to provide a counter to the 'uhr' above:


'It has come to my attention that the f[ɜ]rry scene in the United States is a hell of a lot different than the f[ɜ]rry scene in the United Kingdom... they list f[ɜ]rry as their occupation ... f[ɜ]rry in name only.'

Some speakers of English English aren't aware that Americans merge 'hurry' and 'furry'. Even if they try to Americanize their accent for whatever reason, they still continue using 'huhry.' Here's an example from the English-Irish band One Direction, with their song 'Back For You' from Take Me Home (2012).


You don't have to w[ʌ]rry

In dialects of Northern English English where all 'uh' words are pronounced with a short 'u' vowel, you can actually see this affect 'hurry' words so that they sound like 'hoory.' Listen to the below football commentator from North England say 'wurrying' for 'worrying.'


They avoided the press quite c[ʊ]mfortably... Is this now the w[ʊ]rrying time for Liverpool fans?

In an unusual twist, I've found an example of an American who uses a short 'oo' in an 'uhr' word. Dinah Washington, who was born 1924 in Alabama but raised in Chicago, Illinois, pronounces 'flurry' as 'floory' in her 1961 recording of 'Mad About The Boy.' Any ideas what's going on here?


Who's in the fl[ʊ]rry of her first affair

What does the merger sound like?

The Andrews Sisters were an American trio. The youngest sister was born in 1918 in Minnesota (the American Midwest), meaning they probably finished acquiring their native language by 1930. If you compare their 'worry' to the 'er' they use in 'cure' and 'hearse,' you can tell that it's not quite the same sound. But it's not a distinct 'uh ri' like Mae West uses in 'A Guy What Takes His Time.' Perhaps this is an example of the merger in progress? The following song was recorded 1952.


if you start to w[ʌ]rry, you can order the h[ɝ]rse... So why w[ɜ]rry? Why w[ɜ]rry? W[ɜ]rry gets you nowhere at all!

A clearer example of a merged 'uhr' vowel can be found in child singer Shirley Temple. Shirley was born in 1928 in Santa Monica, California. Shirley was 7 years old when she starred in The Littlest Rebel (1935) and she's clearly using an 'err' vowel for the song "Polly Wolly Doodle."


If you think you're gonna w[ɝ]rry, you can stop it in a h[ɝ]rry

That someone as young as Shirley was used the merged vowel means it was possibly already done by the time she started acquiring language. California therefore would be very likely to have had the merger at the beginning of the century.

Another Californian example is the Beach Boys. Their song "Don't Worry Baby" (1964) clearly uses an 'er' vowel. (Also, am I crazy or does Brian Wilson, the lead, use a rounded, fronted 'er' in general? He always sounds like he's trying to say a short 'oo' and an 'r' at the same time.)


Don't w[ɝ]rry baby

Halsey is from New Jersey, and uses a 'her' vowel in 'hurricane.


I'm Halsey and this is h[ɝ]rricane... I'm a h[ɝ]rricane

Even new Yorkers have lost this distinction. Cardi B, who is from the Bronx, has reduced 'worry' to 'werr' entirely, showing how the 'r' colored vowel spreads.


Hectic, don't w[ɝ]rr 'bout what's on my left wrist

Modern hip-hop and rap uses the HURRY-FURRY merger clearly. Canadian singer Drake's 2013 hit "Started From The Bottom" shows a clear example of an 'er'y 'worry':


I'mma w[ɝ]rry 'bout me

How do other languages and ESOL speakers deal with English loan words?

The question of which variety of English gets used as the basis for second language instruction is usually related to what region you're in. In North America, you are likely to find American English as the basis due to the United States being the most prominent English speaking power. In Europe, you are more likely to find English English being used as the basis due to the United Kingdom being the most prominent English speaking power nearby. But it's not always as simple as that.

One fun example is ABBA, the Swedish pop band from the 1970s. The Swedish National Agency for Education, or Skolverket, has historically explicitly taught British English as the default (see page 3, background to research). American English was not taught until 1994 (source). This means the members of ABBA almost certainly experienced British-centric English education.

But the variety of English they use in their music has some noticeable American flavor. The way they say 'chance' in 'Take a chance on me', as a dipthongized 'kean', is distinguishably American - among other features. How do they treat the 'uhr' words? Well, inconsistently. In 'Take A Chance On Me', 'worry' and 'hurry' have an 'er'-like sound in them. But in 'If It Wasn't For The Nights,' the word 'courage' has an [a]-like-sound (which is as close as they ever get to the American 'uh', which does not exist in Swedish). And in 'When All Is Said And Done,' 'hurry' is also pronounced with an [a] sound (the same vowel they use in 'done').


I'm no h[ɝ]rry ... you don't have to w[ɝ]rry ... I'd have c[a?]rage left to fight... There's no h[a]ry anymore when all is said and d[a]ne

How about Japanese, which has a number of English loanwords? Both American and British English have historically influenced Japanese. But when using the katakana syllabary to represent the sounds of English words, it bends towards British English, and this is seen in the difference between 'furry' and 'hurry'.

'Furry' is ファーリー (faarii). This matches with how the 'er' sound is usually transliterated into Japanese, with a long 'aa' sound. Meanwhile 'hurry' ハリー (harii) is transliterated with a short 'a' sound, as is used to represent the 'uh' sound. In a hypothetical Japanese English, you could have a length-based HURRY-FURRY distinction! (source)

You can see a similar transliteration distinction in Russian, where the 'uh' word 'curry' becomes карри 'karri', while the 'er' word 'girlfriend' becomes гёрлфренд 'gyorlfrend'.

Let's wrap this section up with an example from a Latin American Spanish speaker. Shakira was born in Colombia. In her song "Timor," you can hear that she uses an American-ish 'er'-like vowel in 'hurry' and 'worry'.


if they forget about us, then h[e]rry, if we forget about 'em, don't w[e]rry, if they forget about us, then h[e]rry

Conclusions

Do you merge HURRY and FURRY, or are they distinct to you? Perhaps you only have a partial merger? If you speak English as a second language, were you taught to pronounce these words differently? As always, I would love to see new examples.

Postscript

Another example of a strange realization of a HURRY word: Christina Aguilera seems to realize "worry" to rhyme with hoary! She's from Staten Island, New York City, but moved around a lot as a child.

4 comments:

  1. In an unusual twist, I've found an example of an American who uses a short 'oo' in an 'uhr' word. Dinah Washington, who was born 1924 in Alabama but raised in Chicago, Illinois, pronounces 'flurry' as 'floory' in her 1961 recording of 'Mad About The Boy.' Any ideas what's going on here?

    That's not an [ʊ]. It's [ɵ] or somewhere around that: rounded, but central.

    (The trick is probably that I come at [ɜ] and [ɵ] from my native [œ] and [ø].)

    The Andrews Sisters were an American trio. The youngest sister was born in 1918 in Minnesota (the American Midwest), meaning they probably finished acquiring their native language by 1930. If you compare their 'worry' to the 'er' they use in 'cure' and 'hearse,' you can tell that it's not quite the same sound. But it's not a distinct 'uh ri' like Mae West uses in 'A Guy What Takes His Time.' Perhaps this is an example of the merger in progress? The following song was recorded 1952.

    I think they have a sequence [ɜɹ] in every worry, but a unitary [ɝ] in hearse.

    A clearer example of a merged 'uhr' vowel can be found in child singer Shirley Temple. Shirley was born in 1928 in Santa Monica, California. Shirley was 7 years old when she starred in The Littlest Rebel (1935) and she's clearly using an 'err' vowel for the song "Polly Wolly Doodle."

    ...These are both rhotic vowels, but they don't rhyme even though the composer obviously wanted them to! Worry gets some kind of [o˞], while hurry has [ɝ].

    But probably that's allophonic: worry starts with /wr̩/, hurry with /hr̩/, and the /w/ rounds a following /r̩/ while the /h/ does not.

    Another Californian example is the Beach Boys. Their song "Don't Worry Baby" (1964) clearly uses an 'er' vowel. (Also, am I crazy or does Brian Wilson, the lead, use a rounded, fronted 'er' in general? He always sounds like he's trying to say a short 'oo' and an 'r' at the same time.)

    Not crazy. I think this is a different phonology yet again: worry starts with /wər/, and the /ə/ is rounded and/or raised by the /w/ to varying extents.

    Shakira was born in Colombia. In her song "Timor," you can hear that she uses an American-ish 'er'-like vowel in 'hurry' and 'worry'.

    I hear a sequence [ɜɹ] (sometimes with an actual pause in between), definitely no [e] or [ɛ] in there.

    If you speak English as a second language, were you taught to pronounce these words differently?

    I was taught neither the merger nor its absence. We were simply exposed to a variety of accents, without any commentary. The result has been total confusion on this point until literally just right now.

    Worry in particular I always thought was on the /ɜ/ side because of its spelling (word, worm, worth). Turns out it's just another case where o is used for u because uuo is more readable than uuu.

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    Replies
    1. That's not an [ʊ]. It's [ɵ] or somewhere around that: rounded, but central.

      (The trick is probably that I come at [ɜ] and [ɵ] from my native [œ] and [ø].)


      A confession: I'm not great at distinguishing the central vowels. My native languages tend to stick to the outside parts of the vowel chart. I'll take your word for it!
      If it is [ɵ], then I wonder how that came about. fl[ɜ]rry is normal, and singers like to raise vowels, so perhaps fl[ɘ]rry is possible in a singing environment. But why the rounding? Influence from /r/, which tends to be labialized?

      I think they have a sequence [ɜɹ] in every worry, but a unitary [ɝ] in hearse.

      Agreed. It's more similar to the British example of 'furry'. I mistook it for the [ʌ] at first because I wasn't used to an American actually using a sequence [ɜr] instead of r-colored [ɝ] like all the following examples. It's still the merger, but the final result is different.

      ...These are both rhotic vowels, but they don't rhyme even though the composer obviously wanted them to! Worry gets some kind of [o˞], while hurry has [ɝ].

      But probably that's allophonic: worry starts with /wr̩/, hurry with /hr̩/, and the /w/ rounds a following /r̩/ while the /h/ does not.

      Not crazy. I think this is a different phonology yet again: worry starts with /wər/, and the /ə/ is
      rounded and/or raised by the /w/ to varying extents.


      Ha ha, the Shirley example definitely sounds like it rhymes to me! I guess this is an example of how phonology can 'smooth over' phonetic differences, even though now I can hear that they're not actually the exact same vowel.

      I hadn't expect the [w] to influence the 'er' sound sound, but perhaps it happens more often than I thought. I *think* I use the same vowel in 'worry' and 'hurry'. But I can imagine a rounding effect happening in speech.

      I hear a sequence [ɜɹ] (sometimes with an actual pause in between), definitely no [e] or [ɛ] in there.

      My weakness at identifying centralized vowels strikes again! On a second listen, I agree.

      I was taught neither the merger nor its absence. We were simply exposed to a variety of accents, without any commentary. The result has been total confusion on this point until literally just right now.

      This seems to be the MO for a lot of English as L2 teaching - 'these sounds exist, and here's a list of words with these sounds.' I can definitely imagine it being confusing if you're also exposed to multiple accents, so one may pick up a British 'hurry' but an American 'courage'.

      To be fair to teachers, nobody really teaches this to native English speakers either. You either have to have a very keen ear or an interest in linguistics. There are examples of lexical borrowing between dialects that just... happen, and nobody really talks about it because it's not dramatically different.

      Worry in particular I always thought was on the /ɜ/ side because of its spelling (word, worm, worth). Turns out it's just another case where o is used for u because uuo is more readable than uuu.

      One of the tragedies of English spelling is how it fools one into thinking one understands its logic and ways... right up until you run into a case where a totally different rule is applied. English spelling makes more sense when I look at it from a historical perspective of sound shifts, but expecting people to understand the history of a language to make sense of the writing system is quite a ridiculous burden.

      Case in point - I still don't know which words are in the FORCE set and which are in the NORTH set.

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    2. I'm not that good with central vowels either. Maybe it's not [ɵ] at all, but the most dread [ɞ] – [ɵ] is the reduced vowel of a widespread accent of German, while I'm not sure I'm familiar with anything that uses [ɞ].

      By saying I come at this from the other side, I mean that many central vowels – the unrounded [ɜ] just as well as the rounded [ɞ] and [ɵ], and even the back unrounded [ɤ]* – sound most like my native /œ/ and/or /ø/ to me, so I have more points of comparison than if I had to start from English. In other words, the difference between [ʌ] and [ɜ] maps to the one between a /a/ and ö /œ/, so I don't find [ʌ] and [ɜ] particularly similar to begin with. It's not a matter of a keen ear, but of a starting point.

      * In the early 20th century, the Mandarin /ɤ/ was actually rendered ö in at least some German transcriptions. Having had a few beginners' courses in Mandarin, that makes perfect sense to me.

      'these sounds exist, and here's a list of words with these sounds.'

      Worse: we were never given a sound inventory. This is good in that different Standard English accents have different ones, but really bad in that, if you have no idea of comparative phonology, you'll never guess how many phonemes are hiding in the range between LOT, THOUGHT and GOAT. Throughout school, my guess was much higher than anything any natural language crams into that space, because I was pooling the accents I'd been exposed to and making guesses based on the spelling.

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  2. I'd not noticed this before. The ABBA example is especially interesting as it's inconsistent... what's going on there??

    Side note, there is also a version of 'A Guy What Takes His Time' by a Liverpudlian singer, Kathryn Williams. Hear the way she sings 'hurry': https://youtu.be/FeP-qkemLUc?t=40
    Kathryn Williams, a bit like the Beatles, has a way of sounding a bit Americanised in her 'singing accent' sometimes, but you get the sense that it's a conscious musical choice while the general impression you get is LIVERPOOL :)
    Take the last word of the song, her long drawn-out 'tiiiime' almost sounds like a Southern drawl to me.

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