Jonathan Ross and the Letter R

Jonathan Ross

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For many years, Britons have mocked television host Jonathan Ross for his pronunciation of the letter “r.” Ross seems to replace this letter with a “w,” so it appears to oustiders that he pronounces his own name “Jonathan Woss.” In reality, this perception is not quite right.

Ross exhibits something I like to call “non-rhotic dialect r fronting.” I’ve noticed that It has often been noted that some speakers of non-rhotic dialects (i.e. dialects where the “r” is dropped at the end of words like “car” and “butter”) have a tendency to front the letter r in other contexts.

There are a few dialects where I’ve seen this to be the case: Cockney/Southeast England, New York City and Boston. Usually what happens here is that instead of pronouncing “r” with the “standard” English alveolar approximant (IPA [ɹ]), it is pronounced a bit more forward in the mouth as a labiodental approximant (IPA [ʋ]).

To put this into plain English, it means that where an average American or Brit would pronounce “r” with their tongue planced on the ridge behind the top teeth, Jonathan Ross and people like him pronounce it with the bottom lip placed near the top teeth. It’s not actually “w” we’re hearing, but something in between Standard English “w” and “r.”

There are two other (American) celebrity examples of this: Barbara Walters and Matt LeBlanc (of Friends fame). Walters has received a lot of ribbing about her “loose” r’s, resulting in the Saturday Night Live impression of her from the 1970s in which she opened her talk show with, “hello, I’m Bawbwa Wawa.” The reality is that Walters, who grew up in Boston, exhibits a dialect feature common to where she is from.

Matt LeBlanc is also from Boston, and while his accent is mild, he still displays a bit of the “fronted r:” in old Friends episodes he said the word “Rachel” a bit like “Wrachel.” It isn’t as strong as the other two examples, but you can still hear a slight fronting of the “r.”

I am sure there is a theory about why this happens, but I haven’t read it (yet). Nevertheless, I believe this is an actual dialect feature and not just an individual quirk. The next time you want to make fun of Barbara Walters or Jonathan Ross, realize they’re speaking with accents, not speech impediments.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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12 Responses to Jonathan Ross and the Letter R

  1. So how about some actual evidence that this is an accent (much less “dialect”) feature? It certainly isn’t in the case of Woss. It’s just a case of a well-known variety of “defective” r.

  2. trawicks says:

    Harry,

    Good point. Let me clear up a few points that I think may help.

    Take a look at this YouTube video of an interview with Ross. If you study his mouth when he pronounces his “r”s we are clearly talking about a labiodental approximant, not a “w” (voiced labialized velar approximant). His bottom lip when he says the “r” in “relax” is clearly positioned near his top row of teeth. I don’t think this is much in question, but I just want to be 100% clear on this point.

    In retrospect, my humble disclaimer of “I’ve noticed that…” to preface my discussion of labiodental “r” was misleading. While it is true that I have noticed this phenomenon, I am emphatically NOT the first person to realize that many London English speakers (not just Ross), use a labiodental approximant to pronounce “r.” Type “labiodental approximant cockney” into Google and you’ll get a slew of academic materials and articles referring to this phenomenon. Here is just one of many. I don’t think there is any question about this point. (It is also the opinion of the author of the linked article that Ross and other R-labiodentalizers do not have a speech impediment).

    There have probably been some studies done about labiodental-r in Boston and New York as well, but I haven’t read much material about that phenomemon. In that case, I am mostly going off my own observations. However, I’ve heard indications of r-fronting in at least Boston speakers so many times over the years, and in so many Bostonian celebrities (Walters, LeBlanc, Jay Leno), that I cannot write all those examples off as merely isolated speech difficulties, especially since I don’t think labiodental “r” should be considered a speech impediment in the first place.

    But getting back to Ross, I think the more appropriate question is why this should be considered a speech impediment rather than a legitimate dialect feature. Ross uses a labiodental r. The labiodental r has been identified as a feature of London speech for at least several decades. Jonathan Ross is from London. Is there something I’m missing?

  3. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Yes, I’ve noticed this too. This does seem to happen much more often in regions with a non-rhotic accent. It’s interesting how you can hear in non-rhotic areas on both sides of the Atlantic. I wonder what the connection is between having a non-rhotic (I’m trying to see how many times I can use the word “non-rhotic”) accent and using a labiodental r. Why are non-rhotic speakers more likely to do it?

    • trawicks says:

      I wish I had some kind of explanation, but I don’t. I’ve had a few hypotheses brewing around in my head about it, but they’re all just speculation!

    • dw says:

      I can give an answer to this. I grew up in England with a labiodental /r/ a bit like Ross’s. I now live in California and have “corrected” my /r/ to a retroflex approximant.

      I’ve observed that my daughter, who grew up and learned to speak here in California, first produced a labiodental nonsyllablic /r/, but a retroflex syllabic /r/. It seems that the apical approximant is easier to produce in syllable than non-syllabic position. Once it is mastered in syllabic position it can then be applied to the non-syllabic position too.

      This matches with my own experience. When I arrived in California, I first began imitating the apical approximants in syllabic position.

      Of course, since only rhotic accents have syllabic /r/, this would explain why non-rhotic accents are those that allow labial /r/.

  4. 'enry 'iggins says:

    *hear this

  5. fay lee says:

    i’m sorry to disagree but i have a cousin with the same problem and this is not at all a fronting of the non-rhotic r, of course they dont do it exactly as a w, they know it is not the same sound and make an effort to try to produce an r, but not because of their accent but because they cannot produce the r properly. that is a fact!!

    • Rachel says:

      I can’t either, but I think the reason I can’t isn’t an impediment, it’s my accent, just as I can’t roll my Rs because I haven’t grown up speaking French. I was quite shocked when I first learned that it wasn’t standard to pronounce it with your tongue and teeth and I could never understand what people were talking about regarding Jonathan Ross’s pronunciation. Everyone I know does it that way.

  6. Rob says:

    It is a speech impediment called Rhotacism. My wife’s son (from a previous marriage) has it.

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  8. Roger Explosion says:

    There may be a speech impediment form of this, but in the majority of cases it is a learned behaviour. My life has been split roughly evenly between two non-rhotic countries – Australia and the UK. This ‘impediment’ is almost unknown in Australia, but relatively common in the south of England.

  9. Colin says:

    Ben,

    I’m from the Boston area and have studied the variations on the accent from one town to another for years. Barbara Walters’ pronunciation is not common. I’ve always assumed she had a speech impediment.