Merer, merer

The One Big Happy from the 2nd, with Ruthie dealing, once again, with a word she’s at best vaguely acquainted with:

The word Ruthie and Joe’s father is aiming at — readers of the strip know this, because the word is spelled for us in his speech balloon, but Ruthie and Joe don’t — is the Adj mere, a relatively infrequent item, certainly much less frequent in the kids’ experience than the N mirror. Then we stumble into a gigantic rat’s nest of massive variation on a large assortment of phonetic details.

NOAD on the crucial word:

adj. mere: [attributive] that is solely or no more or better than what is specified: questions that cannot be answered by mere mortals | it happened a mere decade ago.

offering these alternatives in its thesaurus:

no more than, just, only, merely; no better than; a paltry, a measly, an insignificant, an ordinary, a minor, a little, a piddling, a piffling

The word  is somewhat formal in style; it would probably be quite infrequent in the speech and writing that the kids encounter — which would impel Ruthie to search for a more familiar word that her father might have had in mind.

On to variation in phonetics.

Among other things, there are fairly many Americans for whom the pronunciations of mere and mirror in connected speech frequently overlap significantly, in [‘mɪǝɹ] (where [ɹ] is a retroflex, or at least postalveolar, approximant), with a short [ǝ], or with syllabic [ɹ] instead of [ǝɹ]. There’s another set of American speakers for whom mere and mirror are often distinguished, but by the quality of the accented vowel rather than by the phonetic properties of what follows it: mere with a higher, closer, tenser, and/or somewhat longer vowel than mirror — that is, a vowel tending towards [i], vs. one tending towards [ɪ]. This is the vowel distinction many English speakers have in the accented syllable of merer, vs. mirror.

Note: for those that have this distinction, it’s never an all-or-nothing thing, but a matter of significant differences between means, with sometimes quite a bit of overlap.

Then there are those, quite a lot of them, I think, for whom this distinction is neutralized, so that merer and mirror are usually homophonous. When asked to pronounce merer and mirror one after the other (by reading them off cards, say), I will usually produce a more [i]-like vowel in the first and a more [ɪ]-like vowel in the second. But I suspect that in connected speech I tilt strongly towards [i] for both.

Alas, there is more. I haven’t even gotten into the flower – flour thing, but it interacts with all the other phenomena I’ve mentioned.

But sweeping away these details,

[‘mɪǝɹ] [‘mɪǝɹ] — or [‘miǝɹ] [‘miǝɹ] — on the wall, who’s the fairest of the all?

would be an entirely appropriate sentence to illustrate the the word Ruthie and Joe’s father seems to be asking about. Unfortunately, it’s not the word he is asking about.


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