In usages of あ after other syllables such as け or め, is the あ pronounced or does it prolong the previous vowel's sound?

Taking the katakana spelling of "Mary": メアリー is that "Meh-ah-ri" or "Mehhh-ri"


The あ is pronounced separately, like "meh-ah-ri".1 This will always be the case for sequences like メア, ケア, エア, etc.

For the most part, vowels in katakana loan words are only lengthened by the vowel-lengthening mark "ー" (which I just learned is called 長音符【ちょうおんぷ】). For example: アードバーク "aardvark", イーストウィック "Eastwick", 烏龍【ウーロン】 "Oolong", エース "ace", オークション "auction".

Occasionally, you will see a repeated vowel used in katakana loan words to indicate lengthening instead2 (like in hiragana), e.g. アア "aʻa".3 But you won't ever see something like エア used to mean long /e/. That would have to be エー or maybe エエ. The same holds true for all vowels, except for the exception you probably already know, in which おう is usually pronounced as long /o/ rather than /ou/.

1 I'm sort of guessing here, but I suspect that the reason Mary is spelled メアリー in katakana is that early transcriptions of the word were drawn from a dialect of English that didn't have the Mary-merry merger (or perhaps a time before the merger even had begun anywhere?), so that the first vowel in the word was actually a diphthong ("two vowels"): /ɛə/. The closest approximation to that diphthong in Japanese is エア. If you were to transcribe "Mary" from a dialect of English that did have the Mary-merry merger, I think you would write it メーリー and pronounce it "mehhh-ri", as you put it.

2 Repeated vowels are pretty common when using katakana to write non-loan words, though, e.g. the names of plants and animals.

3 A type of lava that is wonderful for Scrabble purposes. I would imagine the use of アア rather than アー here is to indicate that the ア should be rearticulated - in the original Hawaiian, it looks like there's a glottal stop in the middle there.

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  • I don't suppose アッアー is a reasonable transcription of 'a'ā' :3 – Sjiveru Jan 23 '15 at 19:16
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    My guess is that it came from UK where all of them are different: "Mary" → メアリー, "merry" → メリー, and "marry" → マリー. Interesting enough, an American song Mary Had a Little Lamb became 「メリーさんの羊」! – broccoli facemask - cloth Jan 24 '15 at 13:08

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