The Wild World of the English “R”

The Letter RCompared to other languages, consonants in English don’t vary that much from dialect to dialect. Our vowels are all over the map, but our consonants don’t change much. For example, the English “m” hasn’t budged since the days of Old English. By contrast, the “ou” vowel in “house” has gone through hundreds of permutations.

There is one exception to this generalization: the letter “r.” This sound is subject to all kinds of variants throughout the English-speaking world. There are trilled r’s, tapped r’s, labial r’s, and retroflex r’s.

Consider these varieties of “r” (and these are just the ones I’m aware of!):

The “Standard” R: /ɹ/ (Alveolar Approximant) This is probably the most common type of “r” in English. It’s created by placing the tip of the tongue close the ridge just behind the top row of teeth. You can hear this “r” in numerous British, American, Irish and Australian accents.

The “American” R: /ɻ/ (Retroflex approximant) Similar to the “velar approximant” described above. It is pronounced the same way, except the tongue is curved back just behind the alveolar ridge. You hear this most commonly in American and some Irish accents.

The “Scottish” R: /r/ (Alveolar trill) This is like the “r” in Spanish, Russian or Italian. In English you don’t hear this commonly except in a few strong Scottish or Welsh English speakers.

The “Northern English” R: /ɾ/ (Alveolar tap or flap) This is the “tapped” r that you hear in the Spanish word “cara.” This is fairly common in Scotland and many part of Northern England.

The “Irish Gaelic” R: /ɾˠ/ (Velarized alveolar tap or flap) This is the like the “tapped” r above, except that the part of the tongue furthest back in the mouth (velum) is raised slightly. You can hear this “r” in one place: Ireland, especially in the West.

The “Cockney” R: /ʋ/ (Labiodental Approximant) This sound is made with the bottom lip positioned close to (but not quite touching) the upper teeth. This is a somewhat stigmatized pronunciation, which can be heard in the Greater London Area and some areas of the northeastern United States. Outsiders often hear this sound as “w.”

The “Northumbrian” R: /ʁ/ (Uvular Fricative) The rarest of r’s in the English language, this sound is similar to the “r” in standard French: it is pronounced with the uvula (back of the throat). This used to be heard in Northumbria in Northeastern England, but has almost completely died out at this point.

Then, of course, there is the question of whether an accent is “rhotic” or not: whether the “r” is pronounced in words like “car,” “after,” and “core” (as in American English), or whether the “r” is dropped (as in most British English).

What is it about English “r” that is conducive to so much variation? I haven’t read enough about the subject to begin to answer that question. And ideas from you linguists out there?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

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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25 Responses to The Wild World of the English “R”

  1. You’ve somehow neglected to mention the so-called “bunched r”, even though it’s among the most common pronunciations out there. It’s often described as a common American pronunciation, and I’d be surprised if it weren’t the most common pronunciation in Australia, too (it’s what I use, and I’m pretty sure most people around me do too).

    From an acoustic point of view, the standard ‘r’ and bunched ‘r’ are the same, because they sound identical to the human ear. The same [ɹ] symbol is therefore used for both, and when the standard ‘r’ is said to be the most common, I believe that statistic is based on the sum of the aveolar pronunciation and bunched pronunciation together.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for mentioning that, Adrian!

      I forgot about the mysterious “bunched” or “molar” or “braced” r. I actually had this pronunciation myself when I was younger, until I went to a voice and speech class and was introduced to the radical notion that “r” is created with the tip of the tongue. That being said, the acoustic differences between the two “r”s are so minimal that we’ll probably continue lumping them together until more research comes out.

    • dw says:

      If the molar/bunched R and the alveolar approximant sound “identical to the human ear” then how can you be “pretty sure that most people around me” use one and not the other?

  2. John Cowan says:

    Another r-pronunciation you omit is mine, which is the approximant version of /ʑ/. This is closely related to the standard and bunched rs, but with the tongue-tip behind the lower teeth rather than retracted. I can’t hear the difference between any of these three. I found it easy to learn Mandarin x by just fricathivizing and teefoicing my r.

  3. TT says:

    Uvular /r/ can apparently be found in Ireland too. See here. I think this might be one of the examples Hickey is referring to. It sounds almost like a foreign (language) accent. This pronunciation has also been heard in “isolated pockets of Newfoundland” as well, as you can see.

    Wells also mentions thisin his Accents of English books. He also says a uvular fricative [ʁ] for /r/ is “surprisingly common as a personal idiosyncrasy” in Aberdeen, Scotland. So a uvular realization of /r/ seems to be a bit more widespread than I thought.

    • trawicks says:

      Funny you mention this, TT: I was rereading the Well’s Scottish passage just this very morning!

      I’ve heard uvular or velar r’s in the speech of people from Western Ireland, but it’s usually only post-vocalic. (Glasgow, btw, has developed a pharyngealized r, although again, almost always post-vocalic). I can’t tell if that’s what Wells means in this paragraph or not.

      I have a friend, btw, from Aberdeen, and she certainly doesn’t have any trace of that kind of r. She speaks with a fairly “educated” Scottish accent though, so she’s probably not the best example.

  4. aga says:

    I see the topic is being continued since January a few times and I know it is quite late for me to ask that question, because my test of linguistics is tomorrow, but still: what is that special “R” sound which occurs in Polish language and doesn’t in English (theoretically, I don’t know which one is it, so I cannot say if what our teachers tell us is the one and only truth)? Is there anything like “bark r”(do not consider it as something very precise or scientific, it’s just what I got from my friend’s notes, may be just a hint)?

  5. Andy says:

    In most British English accents, and also in German I believe, when r is preceded by a vowel sound it is silent. Interestingly, R does not seem to exist at all in the speech of many cockneys. It is either changed to a w sound similarly to French (incidently, this w change is not true anywhere else in England), or as noted above, it is silent when preceded by a vowel sound.

  6. Mary Beth Rivetti says:

    Is it possible for the letter “r” to disappear completely? I was watching a British television show, where a character named “Grant” was constantly pronounced “Gant”. The “a” was the flattened “a” we would say in the American pronunciation of Grant, and not the broad “a” one would normally associate with the British pronunciation of that name. There was no “r” at all. The characters are supposed to be in Manchester. Is this something to do with that uvular fricative just vanishing? Or did the subtitle writers just have the name spelled incorrectly?

  7. David Kemp says:

    The Northumbian ‘burr’ is still alive within the county the further you get from urban Tyneside. It is dying, but far from dead. Its’ use invariably ‘tightens’ preceding vowel sounds. As children we were taught to repeat, ‘Aroond the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran’, using the uvular ‘r’ sound all the time to show that we were real Northumbrians.

  8. AUDIO NOIR says:

    i can’t agree at all that the consonants don’t change that much. the pronunciation of ‘t’ for example varies a great deal from the glottal stop all the way to a more ‘d’ sound and even closer to an ‘r’ sound in some british accents. additionally ‘l’ also varies quite a bit. and i would also say consonants are stronger in many british isles accents than most american accents.

  9. saly says:

    Hello,
    I have a question. I am trying to distinguish between British (RP) and General Australian English. Australian have a flap t, non rhotic, /əʊ / diphtong the /ɒ / in /bɒd.i/ … I am wondering about the part of English in which flap t is performed (being non rhotic)…Thank you so much; I like your blog and I am much indebted to you Sir.

    • Quist says:

      Listen to both accents a lot. You should start to hear the difference. The differences I’ve noticed are:

      1. The vowel of “snow”, “both”, etc. is different in Australian English.

      2. The intonation of Australian English is different. Australians don’t use the stereotypical “British” intonation patterns (that Americans love to mock) too much, like the fall-rise pattern which may indicate non-finality and the distinctive yes-no question pattern (“Have you gone mad, Harry?”).

      3. Other subtle differences with the vowels and consonants.

  10. saly says:

    Another question concerning the pin pen merger; it’s very common in Southern USA (AAVE), strangely I herad an aaustralian performing it with nasals and alveolars?? (ten and best) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ibW9Cd6okM
    Another strange thing there is Th fronting. HAve never heard of it in australia??? Thanks

  11. Paul Rogers says:

    You have not mentioned the Southern and Western English counties rolled “r” which is surely almost identical to the American “r” with the tongue in roughly the same position.

  12. Paul Rogers says:

    Well, I am not an expert in this field but surely most Americans say “carr” for “car” rather than the “cah” of RP. This sounds very close to say a cornish or devon pronunciation to me. I’ve always assumed that is what is meant by “rolling ones Rs “. I apologise if this is incorrect.

    • Matt says:

      Well that’s different from what most people mean when they talk about “rolling R’s”. Usually people are talking about the “rr” in a Spanish word such as “tierra” when they say that. A similar sound to the “rr” of Spanish is also found in numerous other languages. Not only do Americans not use this sound when they speak English, but many of them cannot produce this sound. Presumably many Brits, Aussies, etc. can’t either.

      What most Americans and Canadians _do_ do, however, is pronounce every written R. The way they actually articulate their R isn’t very different from the way the English articulate theirs in words like “rat” and “ring”. It’s just that most Americans, unlike most English people, also pronounce the R in “car”, “here”, “there”, etc. That’s probably what you’re thinking of.

      • Paul Rogers says:

        Yes, that’s it precisely what I mean and it was incorrect to describe it as “rolling”. My point about the similarity of the American R and the south /western English R I think remains valid.

        The rolled Spanish R is probably less difficult to pronounce than the French R which is created in the throat with minimal tongue involvement (if this causes amusement amongst French friends try asking them to pronounce the English word “maths”).

  13. Paul Rogers says:

    On reflection maybe it should be called a burr?

  14. Paul Rogers says:

    Perhaps rolling is when the tongue vibrates as with the Scottish R. So how is the French R sound described?

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