Some words sound the same — or they don’t — depending upon where your ears have been.
Fifty years ago when I was at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, I knew a young man who grew up on the east coast in cranberry bog country. I liked him, but sometimes I found him impossible to understand. To my midwestern ears, he pronounced STALK, STOCK, and STORK all the same. He was telling a joke one day and used that term, whichever it was. His explanation, when we asked, left me in the dark, because the context of the joke could allow any of the three nouns as plausible and none made any particular sense. I just wish I could remember the joke.
Mary, merry, and marry were the same sound as I grew up in Chicago and Indiana. They all rhymed with berry, bury, and Barry. Now in upstate New York, the A in marry and Barry (but not Mary) almost rhymes with with the A in hat, grinding on my ears. And bury might be covered in burrs. On Vermont Public radio I hear a lot about Brattleboro and Marlboro. Those towns used to rhyme with burro, thorough, and furrow. Now here, their penultimate syllables rhyme with “uh.” Oh, and that Cranberry bog? To me it rhymes with dog, log, and fog, And closet rhymes with pause it, not posit, whereas God rhymes with plod rather than flawed. A survey in the New York Times and also in The New Yorker online pinpointed my speech as “most like” Madison, Rockford, and Omaha and “least like” Boston, Worcester, and Providence — all places I’ve been. No wonder I couldn’t understand my friend!
Chicago radio of the early 40’s and rural Indiana relatives informed my speech. Who can learn English, let alone its spelling? Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree addresses the frustration deaf children and their parents experience when they try to communicate using spoken English.
A program I enjoy is A Way with Words. Martha Barnett and Grant Barrett display wide knowledge without pedantry. They invite their listeners to give their own versions first, rather than jumping in with a definitive answer, if one exists. Quite often, it really doesn’t.