One of the best-known pre-rhotic mergers is known as the Mary-marry-merry merger, which consists of the mergers before intervocalic /r/ of /æ/ and /ɛ/ with historical /eɪ/. This merger is quite widespread in North America.[sample 1] A merger of Mary and merry, while keeping marry distinct, is found in the South and as far north as Baltimore, Maryland, and Wilmington, Delaware; it is also found among Anglophones in Montreal. In the Philadelphia accent the three-way contrast is preserved, but merry tends to be merged with Murray; likewise ferry can be a homophone of furry. (See furry-ferry merger below.) The three are kept distinct outside of North America, as well as in the accents of Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island.[sample 2] There is plenty of variance in the distribution of the merger, with expatriate communities of these speakers being formed all over the country.
I grew up in the Midwest, where the pre-rhotic merger is firmly entrenched. Memories of my New York mother (trying to form her own expatriate community, I presume) drilling us in the bathtub so we would preserve the "three-way contrast" came flooding back today. She was successful in that (if I concentrate) I can give each of the three a unique pronounciation. Unfortunately, occasional drills could not overcome the peer effect and at pace, it's all sounds the same coming from my mouth. Sorry, Mom!
The memories were triggered when, in the midst of a reflection I was giving for a day of renewal for mothers, I encountered this phrase in my text: "immanent and imminent". They look different on paper, sound different in my head. Alas, they don't sound different when I say them. Stuffed between two nasal consonants, my /ə/and my /ɪ/ (respectively) are indistinguishable.
The difference between writing for the column and writing to speak is significant.
Photo is of a painting that hung in the stairwell at Eastern Point Retreat House when I made the Exercises, and that I spent a fair amount of time contemplating. I used it to make prayer cards to give to the retreatants today. I think the day of renewal went well - a taste of Ignatian spirituality for mothers.