Vowels before R

English spelling reflects Middle English (ie a 600 hundred-year-old) pronunciation. This is why the words Cate kɛit, care kɛː, cat kat, and car kɑː are each spelled with the same vowel letter, A, although these four words contain four different vowels. The vowels of Cate and cat used to be simply a long–short pair in Middle English, but today their quality is also rather different (Cate contains a mid-to-high diphthong, cat a low monophthong). We see a similar difference between the vowels of care and car (a front mid vs a low back long monophthong).

Diphthongs and their pre-R counterparts

The vowels of Cate and care were the same in Middle English. Their difference emerged as a result of the influence of the segment r that was pronounced at the end of care in an earlier stage of English.»This r, or some reflex of it, is still pronounced in so-called rhotic accents. The influence of the r on the preceding diphthong is here called breaking. As the chart below shows, breaking results in the insertion of an extra vowel, ə, after the diphthong. This also means that the number of syllables increases: a plain vowel constitutes a single syllable, while a broken vowel is always two syllables. Broken vowels therefore are not independent members of the vowel inventory of SBE: they are all combinations of a diphthong and schwa. So they are not vowels, but combinations of two vowels.»These two vowel sequences are sometimes said to be triphthongs, ie monosyllabic three-vowel combinations. Triphthongs are theoretically very spurious. Furthermore the two-syllable word liar is homophonous with the allegedly monosyllabic lyre. This is because both of these are in fact two-syllable words.

In a second step the two syllables of the broken vowel are merged into a long monophthong. This is called smoothing. The chart below shows the broken and the smooth pair of the seven diphthongs of SBE. In some cases the smooth counterpart of a vowel is simply a lengthened version of its first element, while in other cases it is a long vowel of different quality. Nevertheless, all smooth vowels are long monophthongs. We can also observe that smoothing eliminates some contrasts: eg boor and boar are both boː, while the vowels boot bɵut and boat bəut do contrast.

spelling  free   R-influenceddiphthong type
 broken  smooth
E, EE, EA, IE ɪiɪi.əɪːmarginal
U, UI, EU/EW, OO ɵu(ɵu.ə)
O, OA əuəu.ənarrow
A, AI/AY, EI/EYɛiɛi.əɛː
I/Y ɑiɑi.əɑːwide
OU/OW auau.ə
OI/OY oioi.ə()

Diphthong+schwa sequences developed in English not only by breaking. Such sequences have already existed previously, or could be created by suffixation: eg Crimea krɑimɪi.ə,»In the transcriptions that follow a dot separates the diphthong and the schwa to show that they belong to two separate syllables. ski+er skɪi.ə, fuel fjɵu.əl, blu+er blɵu.ə, Noah nəu.ə, low+er ləu.ə, Graham grɛi.əm, play+er plɛi.ə, lion lɑi.ən, high+er hɑi.ə, vowel vau.əl, cow+ard kau.əd, etc. It is not common for these “nonbroken” diphthong+schwa sequences to smooth, although we do find some examples: prayer prɛː, diamond dɑːmənd, idea ɑidɪː, etc.

Smoothing has not taken place for all seven vowels at hand at the same pace. For the two narrow diphthongs (ɛi and əu) the broken variants do not exist at all,»Except, of course, where they are not a result of R influence, like in player or Noah. this is why they are crossed out in the chart. In the case of broken ɪi.ə vs smooth ɪː we find variation. Within an utterance the smooth vowel is more common (eg here it is hɪ́ːr ɪt ɪ́z, nearest hero nɪ́ːrəst hɪ́ːrəu), while at the end of an utterance the broken variant still occurs (eg it is here ɪt ɪz hɪ́i.ə, near nɪi.ə), though smooth ɪː is becoming increasingly common here, too. The R-influenced versions of ɵu shows most variation. The broken ɵu.ə is becoming increasingly rare, but there is no single smooth counterpart for it. The chart contains , which is perhaps the most common vowel to occur in this position. However, especially after j we find ɵː (eg bureau bjɵːrəu), and occasionally even əː (eg jury ʤəːrɪj).

Wide and marginal diphthongs exhibit yet another kind of behaviour. Utterance finally the broken variant is common: eg there’s a fire ðɛ́ːz ə fɑ́i.ə. Within an utterance the smooth version occurs more often: eg fire engine fɑ́ːr ɛnʤən (just like in the case of ɪi.ə~ɪː). However, when the r after a wide or marginal diphthong is followed by a vowel, the unbroken diphthong is commonly heard (eg virus vɑirəs, hero hɪirəu, tourist tɵurɪst), besides the expected smooth vowel (vɑːrəs, hɪːrəu, toːrɪst). We call this unbreaking. Thus the wide and marginal diphthongs may be unbroken when the r following them is itself followed by a vowel (other examples include Nauru naurɵu, Moira moirə). As a result wide and marginal diphthongs may occur before r within the same word, while the narrow diphthongs (ɛi əu) may not: they are smooth (eg vary vɛːrɪi, glory gloːrɪi).

Short vowels and their pre-R counterparts

Historically short vowels were also influenced a following r. However, unlike the r that had influenced diphthongs, which may have been lost (eg in fierce fɪːs) or not (eg in hero hɪːrəu), the r that influenced short vowels was always lost (eg card kɑːd). In fact, when this r was not lost, ie when it was followed by a vowel, it did not influence the preceding vowel either (eg carry karɪi).

spellingchecked broad
I ɪəː
E ɛ
U ʌ
O ɔ
A aɑː

The effect R has on short vowels is called broadening, the resulting vowels are broad. We noted above that smoothing results in the elimination of contrast (boat and boot have different vowels, boar and boor have the same vowel). Broadening is ever more radical in this respect: the contrast of ɪ, ɛ, ʌ (and ɵ) is merged:»This is referred to as the first nurse merger, since these vowels have merged in the vowel of nurse. Incidentally it is also the case that the vowels of first, nurse, and merge were merged. each is paired with the broad vowel əː. Thus, while the vowels of bit bɪt, but bʌt, bet bɛt (and put pɵt) are all different, firm fəːm, burn bəːn, and Bern bəːn contain the same broad vowel.

The broken and smooth counterpart of the diphthong əu and the broad counterpart of the short vowel ɔ are also merged: soap səup and sob sɔb contain different vowels, but the vowel of soar soː and sort soːt is the same.»In some American accents, these two vowels are different: four for and for fɔr are a minimal pair here. In SBE they are homophonous. As we have seen above, the vowels spelt by A maintain the four-way contrast: Cate kɛit, care kɛː, cat kat, car kɑː.


The chart below is a combination of the two charts above, the latter one flipped. It shows that the seven-way contrast of free vowels and the six-way contrast of checked vowels is considerably reduced in the case of R-vowels. It is only the pairs of free ɪi and ɛi that are unique. Free ɵu, əu and checked ɔ share the R-vowel , free ɑi, au and checked a share ɑː, and the checked vowels ɪ, ɛ, ɵ, and ʌ share əː.

spelling  free  (broken)R-vowelscheckedspelling
E ɪiɪi.əɪːəːɪI
A ɛiɛːɛE
U/OO ɵuɵu.əɵU/OO
OI/OY oioi.əʌU
O əuɔO
I/Y ɑiɑi.əɑːaA

Vowels before r

Up to this point we have been talking about vowels followed by an orthographical R. Linguistically this is not a defendable view, but it is pedagogically appropriate. We are now going examine the set of vowels that occur before a r that occurs in pronunciation. You may recall that in current British English, any r is followed by a vowel.

Checked vowels before r

The checked vowels (ɪ ɛ a ʌ ɔ ɵ) all occur before r if the r is followed by a vowel within the same word. That is, we have syrup sɪrəp, merit mɛrət, baron barən, current kʌrənt, sorrow sɔrəu, courier kɵrɪjə.»ɵr is very rare, but neither is ɵ itself a very common vowel of current British English. You may say that this is obvious: r only occurs before vowels, so any vowel can only be followed by an r which itself is followed by a vowel. This, however, is not necessarily the case: recall, r’s are not only pronounced before a vowel, but also at the end of a word if the next word or suffix begins with a vowel. Checked vowels may not occur in this case, as shown by the following words, all of which contain a suffix with a word boundary before it: stirrer stəːr#ə, preferring prɪfə́ːr#ɪŋ, starry stɑːr#ɪi, blurry bləːr#ɪi, adorable ədóːr#əbəl. As these — and all other examples — show, we find R vowels in this position.

Free vowels before r

The occurrence of free vowels before r is less categorical. The two narrow diphthongs — ɛi and əu — do not occur before r at all. (Except, of course, for a word initial r: eg day-return dɛi rətəːn, go wrong gəu rɔŋ.)

The two marginal diphthongs are possible, but less common before r, and alternate with R vowels in this position: eg for hero hɪjrəu is possible, but hɪːrəu is more common, for tourist tʉurɪst is possible, but toːrɪst is more common.

The wide diphthongs are fairly common before r, but they also alternate with the R vowel ɑː: eg virus vɑirəs or vɑːrəs, dowry daurɪi or dɑːrɪi. For completeness’s sake, we mention the third wide diphthong, oi, which does not seem to alternate: Moira moirə, but examples are very few.

last touched 2015-05-06 11:20:24 +0200