How Non-Rhotic Accents Become Rhotic

ChildWhile we’re on the topic of rhotic and non-rhotic accents, I’ll address a frequently asked question:  why do non-rhotic accents switch so quickly to rhotic?  And vice versa?

Since World War Two, both the US and Britain have experienced massive changes in the distribution of rhoticity and non-rhoticity (i.e. whether or not the ‘r’ is pronounced in ‘car,’ ‘core,’ ‘father,’ etc).  In some regions in America (e.g. areas of Maine), local accents have changed from one to the other within a single generation.  And I’m sure the converse is true on the other side of the Atlantic.  So why does this feature seem so fickle?

As with many questions of dialect change, I’d say the answer is ‘children.’

Before expanding on that point, however, I should say this: rhoticity and non-rhoticity are not as easy to ‘learn’ as one might think.  As a young actor learning British Received Pronunciation, I struggled with non-rhoticity.  I found dropping the /r/ in words like ‘skipper‘ and ‘particular’ fairly simple.  But for words like ‘cart’ and ‘park,’ I found it difficult to reorganize the phonology of my accent so that ‘car‘ uses the same vowel as ‘father.’  And don’t get me started on words like ‘nurse:’ as an American, the concept of an elongated schwa-like sound was foreign to me.

I’m sure it’s no different for a British actor learning a rhotic accent.  She would have to adopt an entirely new phonological structure, splitting her ‘long-a’ into two different phonemes.  Again, not as simple as it seems.

Likewise, it’s more difficult for children to change their accent from rhotic/non-rhotic to non-rhotic/rhotic than it is to pick up many other accent features.  And if children have a hard time mastering a feature, it’s a recipe for dialect instability.  Linguist J. K. Chambers, to cite an example, did a study of Canadian children who immigrated to Southern England.  55% of his subjects managed to eliminate t-flapping (i.e. pronunciation of ‘butter’ as something like ‘budder’); by contrast, only 8.3% of his subjects had switched from rhoticity to non-rhoticity.*

If children have a hard time switching from rhotic to non-rhotic, then it follows that even a modest amount of inmigration might disrupt the balance of non-rhotic and rhotic accents in a community.  It seems likely that a decent proportion of children who have moved to a new place will maintain the rhoticity or non-rhoticity of their upbringing.  This can hugely alter the dialect landscape of their new home.  It’s not just adult transplants who can impact the rhoticity of local speech; it’s their offspring as well.

Compounding this effect is the fact that the children of newcomers often account for a disproportionate share of a community’s youngsters.  Hence transplants, in my opinion, are more likely to produce the next generation of linguistic innovators than ‘locals.’  And so accents switch from rhotic to non-rhotic more quickly than with other dialect features.

I think, for now, that this rapid switching is starting to level off.  Here in the US, we just don’t have enough non-rhotic accents anymore to create an American renaissance of non-rhotic speech.  Meanwhile, rhotic areas of England have remained fairly rural, preventing rhoticity from spreading there.

The only way I can see this changing is if, for some reason, there is a large influx of Brits to America, or a large influx of Americans to the UK.  Only time will tell, but I don’t see that happening soon.

*Chambers, J.K (1992) “Dialect Acquisition” in Language 68 pp. 673-705. 

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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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18 Responses to How Non-Rhotic Accents Become Rhotic

  1. Trey says:

    The interesting thing about this is that my grandmother and all of her siblings have a non-rhotic accent (they grew up in Andover, MA), my mother, her siblings and cousins all have a more common rhotic accent. Could this be the influence of television, etc?

    • trawicks says:

      It’s probably less the fault of media than you might think. My guess is that, while your mother’s peers may have grown up in Andover, it’s likely that a good number of her peers’ PARENTS did not. I’m not entirely sure why non-rhoticity receded so rapidly in parts of New England, but I think a whole lot of transplantation had something to do with it!

      • Dan, UK says:

        Interesting that you say that, yet how come you can ask any child over 6 in the UK to do an american accent, and they will have no trouble produce at least a rhotic accent. We are not surrounded by americans, and neither are our parents, but we see american films, and american tv shows. We don’t even have to think about it to reproduce a rhotic accent.

        • Josiah says:

          I think you may be a little overconfident in your ability to be rhotic. For example, here’s Rupert Grint saying “mozzareller” instead of “mozzarella”.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    Linguists, from what I’ve read, discount the effects of television on language change. When TV went bigtime back in the late forties, the doomsayers were all claiming that the entire country would be speaking with a vanilla accent, the so-called “Middle-American” affected by TV news presenters. It didn’t happen, and if it IS happening, TV’s not the culprit. The probable cause is demographic shift; large groups in-migrate from the Northeast to Georgia, and the dialect starts to change. That happens everywhere. But the indigenous dialect doesn’t simply disappear. It modifies and levels, with new people taking on aspects of the local dialect, and locals taking on aspects of the new people’s dialect(s). And it takes a long time for a dialect to change. The core speakers of the dialect tend to retain it and continue to pass it on. Another aspect is code shifting; a southerner will trim his dialect when speaking to a northerner, just as a Frenchman will speak French more slowly and distinctly when speaking to a non-French native speaker. Your take on the children is spot on, but, unless those children take on the coloration of a new dialect at a very young age, They will always be able to shift back to their first dialect as needed. As for adults, listen to Matthew Rhyss on Brothers & Sisters, and then listen to him on The View on Youtube. If you only saw one or the other, you would never know that he was bi-dialectal.

  3. Petrus says:

    As for the Canadian children,the spelling could have played an important role, now they speak very much as they write. Hypercorrection and the principle of least effort are powerful factors always and everywhere.

    • trawicks says:

      You bring up an important point which I omitted due to space: Chambers also mentions orthography as being a serious hindrance in his Canadian kids adopting a non-rhotic accent. Replacing one type of accent with the other requires (to some degree) learning a new set of orthographic rules. I’d actually say orthography was the biggest stumbling block when I was trying to affect a non-rhotic accent: it’s hard to accept that those ‘r’s you’ve been reading all your life don’t equate to /r/ anymore!

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    It seems that AAVE speakers (African Americans) in rhotic-accent regions of the US might be more resistant than others to becoming rhotic speakers. Perhaps this has something to do with the relative importance of language to cultural identity for many African Americans.

    Growing up in Pittsburgh I soon realized that most of my black schoolmates had rather different dialects. I especially noticed this when I was called Challs by most black students, but whites pronounced my name CHAR-ulls.

    • trawicks says:

      AAVE is indeed an interesting exception. Although as I’ve mentioned here before, there are a host of ‘urban accents’ throughout the world that have become similar linguistic islands. The ‘local’ Dublin accent is quite divorced from more mainstream (or middle-class?) accents in the city; Cockney and RP both emerged from London, yet are worlds apart; and having grown up in New England, I’d argue a vast divide is growing between working-class Boston English and more ‘affluent’ accents in the Greater Boston area. AAVE is this principle taken to its extreme: a dialect that exists in urban areas that participates in a tradition entirely its own.

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  6. Ethan says:

    I don’t think any new accent is “easy” to learn, even for children without intense immersion and a lot of time. One could say the same for the “pin-pen” merger, “cot-caught” and the many features of the Jamaican accent. Maine’s accent is being absorbed by General American because of a unique set of circumstances: massive immigration by individual not speaking regional varieties but instead a standard one, and outmigration by young people. The mills that once held Maine’s communities together and preserved its accent are gone. A Maine accent, and a Mainer identity, has little to offer. The ability of different people to learn accents also strongly differs. I can pick up a different accent within several minutes of talking to somebody. Some people can never learn.

  7. AUDIO NOIR says:

    it seems as though despite the ease and speed of modern communications certain features of various accents hold firm to the end. as far as rhoticty/non-rhoticity it would seem american accents are becoming by and large more rhotic all the time. even yankees who drop r’s don’t do so consistently. they may drop the ‘r’ in ‘bar’ but then not in ‘certain’. as for the u.k. non-rhotic seems to be taking over the few rhotic accents left in england (west country, small parts of lancashire/yorkshire) where even people that pronounce r’s don’t do so consistently. why this is i wouldn’t know.

  8. Vern says:

    The increasing rhoticity of American speech is purely painful to my ears. The excessively rhotic speaker sounds as if one is permanently trapped in “Speak Like a Pirate Day”.

  9. Jordan says:

    Excellent observations and blog, Ben. I am late to this post but wish to make some observations.

    I am in my early-30’s, and have spent most of my life in the traditionally non-rhotic Boston-New York accent corridor. My parents’ families have lived in this region for generations, so certain non-rhotic qualities are deeply entrenched. I am non-rhotic, but only with terminal-r and then only with certain words. The bluster about non-rhoticism’s fall from social grace is unwarranted in my view. I am working on my doctorate, and I have never experienced any prejudice for my accent anywhere across North America. Some even think my non-rhoticism is quaint (?!)

    I have noted the following phenomena among the professional or more formal register of the dwindling number of New Englanders and New Yorkers who are fundamentally non-rhotic:

    * terminal-r is often silent, but a medial r, such as “hard”, is usually fully sounded
    * certain words, particularly the first words a person learns such as familial terms (i.e. “brother”, “mother”, “sister”) are non-rhotic, but terminology is rhotic (i.e. “helicopter”)
    * “sir” is almost always sharp rhotic. In my opinion, “sir” is the sharpest rhoticism for many if not most non-rhotic Americans.
    * Sometimes a partially vocalized rhoticity is evident. I pronounce “professor” with a partially vocalized terminal ‘r’ when in a professional context (split-second schwa, then a soft ‘r’).

    More non-rhoticity exists than one might think. Plenty of educated persons from the traditionally non-rhotic regions of the USA will try to at least partially pronounce terminal ‘r’ in professional situations, but will revert to a nearly complete non-rhoticity in the casual presence of other non-rhotics.

    • Vaishu says:

      Great point about John Oliver I took him out of the list. I’ve actually found it rebrkaamly hard to find accent samples of Birmingham celebrities that actually sound like Brummies. It’s such a stigmatized accent that any actor or television host from there seems to adopt a vaguely near-RP accent the second they leave the Midlands.As to the Trap-Bath split, I’ll admit that my American bias comes through there. Here in the States, we tend to see the presence of the split as the unusual feature, rather than the other way around. I’m constantly revising this page, though, so I’ll add it in future drafts.

  10. Becka says:

    I have to agree that it’s really hard to change from rhotic to non-rhotic – I sometimes try to say words like car rhotically and I always fail. I can’t even work out how they do it. (I’m from North Staffordshire).

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