The positional neutralization of Marion Barry

In the wake of the death of Marion Barry, the former Mayor of Washington, DC, one of the most striking revelations was how many people had believed at one time that he was actually a husband-and-wife couple named “Mary and Barry.” Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog, tweeted about this misconception and then discovered that lots of other people had also mentioned it.


The sociolinguist David Bowie mentioned that as a child he thought marionberry yogurt was named after the Mayor. I also thought until tonight that the Mayor was named “Marion Berry.” I had never heard of the berry or the yogurt, but apparently it’s a kind of blackberry that was first cultivated in Marion County, Oregon, when the Mayor was a child in Tennessee. It would have been the perfect Ben and Jerry’s ice cream naming opportunity, but given the Mayor’s controversial past, I understand why they didn’t bite. This may have been the seed for Barry’s fierce opposition to a “yogurt tax,” which could be a whole other blog post.

This widespread confusion between “Mary and” and “Marion,” and Bowie’s and my confusion between “Barry” and “berry,” comes from the positional neutralization of the /æ/, /ɛ/ and /e/ sounds in some dialects of English. As far as I know, no English speaker has trouble telling these two sounds apart before a /t/, so if there were a politician named “Mettion Batty,” no one would think that he was a couple named “Matty and Betty.” But in many parts of the United States, the sounds are pronounced the same before an /r/, so that “marry,” “merry” and “Mary” are pronounced the same.

Why do some people neutralize these vowels before an /r/? To make the American bunched /r/, we put our tongues in a place that’s very close to the place for /e/. That means to say “Mary” /meri/ we don’t have to move our tongues before the /i/, which is pretty convenient. For “merry,” those of us who say /mɛri/ have to raise it a bit, and for “marry” /mæri/ we have to raise it more. My guess is that for some of the ancestors of the marry-merry-Mary neutralizers would have occasionally raised their tongues a little early, or not lowered them so far in the first place, for those words. This kind of timing variability is quite commonplace in speech. They then discovered that confusions like “Mary and Barry” were infrequent and usually pretty easy to correct, and it was more efficient if they didn’t have to lower their tongues so much, so they kept doing it, and their kids picked it up from them.

I personally don’t have this neutralization (possibly due to the influence of a dialect that syllabifies /r/s into onsets), so I can pronounce all three sounds – and hear them, provided that the people speaking are pronouncing them differently. My first memory of this neutralization is hearing Mary Gross ranting about Christmas on Saturday Night Live: “People tell me I should be merry because my first name is Mary. Well, my last name is Gross, so have a gross Christmas!” And since I heard “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” today in the supermarket, it’s not too early to extend that gross Christmas wish to you all.