The distribution of r

English has many different accents. One feature in which these accents differ is whether r is pronounced in a word like card. Many speakers of English pronounce this word as kɑːd, ie without r, others pronounce it as kɑrd, ie with r. The r-less speakers and their accents are referred to as nonrhotic those who pronounce the r are rhotic. Standard British English and most accents of England and Wales, as well as Australian, New Zealand, South African, Boston (Eastern New England), Black American, Southern US accents are nonrhotic, while General American, Canadian, Scottish, and Irish English are rhotic.»In many rhotic accents, General American among them, there is no consonant r in card, but the vowel is retroflex (kɑ˞d), ie the tongue is curled back during its pronunciation. We will here ignore this detail and take all rhotic accents to have kɑrd.

In a nonrhotic accent r is pronounced only when it is followed by a vowel, ie we find this consonant in rat rat and carrot karət, but not in car kɑː and card kɑːd. The distribution is often stated as follows: “r is not pronounced before consonants and at the end of words.” This, however, is only true if we consider words in isolation. Similarly to the distribution of clear and dark l, one can only tell whether a word-final r is pronounced or not only in context, ie if we know the following word or suffix. So no r is pronounced in cars kɑːz or car park kɑː pɑːk, because the suffix or the next word after car is or begins with a consonant, but there is a r in car engine kɑːr ɛnʤɪn, because the next word begins with a vowel. And, of course, if car is at the end of an utterance, if it is not immediately followed by anything, if there is a pause after it, no r is pronounced.

Accordingly, in a nonrhotic accent a r alternates at word boundaries. This alternating r is called linking R. A linking R is always word final and remains unpronounced if there is no vowel following it at the beginning of the next word or suffix (eg cars, car park), but it is pronounced when there is a vowel after it (eg car engine). We talk about linking Rs only in accents that are nonrhotic, in rhotic accents, where r is always pronounced, this category makes no sense.

In a typical nonrhotic accent words that end in the letter r in spelling (like car) and words that have a silent e after this r (like care) show alternation, as below.

car kɑː ~ car park kɑː pɑːk ~ car engine kɑːr ɛnʤɪn
care kɛː ~ care for kɛː foː ~ care about kɛːr əbaut

The words car, care, and all other words that end in r (or re) thus have two forms, one with r, occurring before vowels, and one without, ending in a vowel, occurring before consonants and when nothing follows. The final vowel of words that exhibit this alternation is an R vowel (ie ɪː ɛː ɑː əː oː ɵː or ə) without exception. But there also exist words that end in an R vowel, which do not end in r (or re) in spelling. Some examples are given below.

spa spɑː, bra brɑː, Yamaha jaməhɑː
law loː, draw droː, Arkansas ɑːkənsoː
milieu mɪiljəː
idea ɑidɪː
alga algə, Anna anə, aroma ərəumə

The only thing that distinguishes these words from those that end in r (or re) in spelling is their spelling. But native speakers normally do not think of the spelling when they are talking, so they have no way of distinguishing the final vowels of a word like car from one like spa. Accordingly, most native speakers of nonrhotic accents will pronounce an r after both of these words if they are followed by a vowel.

car engine kɑːr ɛnʤɪn ~ Yamaha engine jaməhɑːr ɛnʤɪn
four eagles foːr ɪigəlz ~ Arkansas eagles ɑːkənsoːr ɪigəlz
grammar exercise gramər ɛksəsɑiz ~ gamma encoding gamər ənkəudɪŋ

The r that occurs at the end of words that do not end in r (or re) in spelling (in the latter of the above examples) is called intrusive R. Note that there is no phonological difference between the linking R and the intrusive R, they are only distinct in spelling. Both linking and intrusive R’s occur after the same set of vowels, R vowels, when the next word (or suffix) begins with a vowel.

Rhotic accents do not exhibit any alternation of this type, and accordingly do not have intrusive R. What is a linking R in a nonrhotic accent is a stable R in a rhotic accent (eg in car). Because word-final r’s do not alternate in rhotic accents, these also do not usually have intrusive R’s.

Up to this point we have pretended that there are two kinds of accent in English: rhotic, with all the R’s occurring in writing pronounced, and nonrhotic, in which only prevocalic r’s are pronounced. This, in fact, is an oversimplification. There also exist accents (eg in New England) in which a r is not pronounced before consonants (like in BrE), but it is pronounced word finally. This type of accent is labelled C in the chart below, they could be called semirhotic. There also exist accents (eg in the Southern part of the USA) where a r is only pronounced at the beginning of words and before stressed vowels. This type is labelled A below. Type B accents are exemplified by BrE (this is what we have referred to as nonrhotic up to now), type D accents are rhotic.


Looking at the four types of accent above we find a pattern emerging. There are no accents, for example, where preconsonantal r would, but word-final r would not be pronounced. Thus we can say that a preconsonantal r implies a word-final r: if we find the former, we can expect the latter too. Similarly, word-final r implies prevocalic r and we do not find any accent where a r only occurs before unstressed vowels, but not before stressed ones.

Based on these observations we can set up a hierarchy of positions, shown below. (V́ marks a stressed vowel.)

__C ⊃ __# ⊃ __V ⊃ __V́

That is: if we find r before consonants, we will find it everywhere. If we find r at the end of words, we will also find it before vowels, but we cannot be sure that we will also find it before consonants (in General American we will, but in many New England accents — type C — we won’t). If we find r before unstressed vowels, we will also find it before stressed vowels, but it is also possible that r only occurs before stressed vowels, but not unstressed ones (this is accent type A).

last touched 2014-11-02 00:47:07 +0100