Q: My husband makes fun of me for pronouncing “bury” as “burr-y” rather than “berry.” Was this word ever pronounced my way? He also kids me about the word “crayons,” which I pronounce “crans” rather that the two-syllable “cray-ons.” Are both acceptable? Thanks for your help!
A: You’ve brought up an interesting subject: why isn’t “bury” usually pronounced the way it looks? But before I answer that, I should mention that your pronunciation of it isn’t necessarily wrong.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only the “berry” pronunciation, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes an acceptable, though uncommon, variant similar to your “burr-y” version.
Now, on to why “bury” usually rhymes with “berry” rather than with “hurry” or “curry.” American Heritage has a “word history” note that says the Old English version of the word, byrgan, was pronounced something like “BURR-yun,” not so different from the way you say “bury.”
During the Middle English period (1100 to 1500), the word was spelled all sorts of ways: birien, byryn, berry, biry, burry, bewry, and so on. Likewise, the pronunciation of the first syllable was all over the place.
In the Midlands, according to the American Heritage note, the first vowel sounded like the “u” in “put”; in southern England, it sounded like the “i” in “pit”; and in the Southeast, it sounded like the “e” in “pet.”
Ultimately, the southeastern pronunciation predominated, but the standardized spelling reflected the Midlands dialect of the scribes in London.
American Heritage says “bury” is “the only word in Modern English with a Midlands spelling and a southeastern pronunciation.”
As for the pronunciation of “crayons,” dictionaries differ on this one too. American Heritage insists on two syllables, but Merriam-Webster’s accepts your one-syllable version as a standard, though uncommon, pronunciation.
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