Putting the “R” in Accents

Obviously it’s quite clear that there are many different English-speaking accents. But what are the practical elements that distinguish these accents? One of the most important is rhoticity. If you’re not sure if you have a rhotic or non-rhotic accent, simply say the following words and phrases out loud:

car, flower, computer,  pasta and pizza, Georgia Allenby

If you pronounce the r sounds in the first three words, you have a rhotic accent.

If you don’t pronounce them, but add an r sound to the end of pasta and Georgia, then you have a non-rhotic accent.

Basically it all boils down to whether or not you pronounce the letter r. Most English accents are non-rhotic, as are Welsh, Australian and New Zealand accents. Rhotic accents are generally found in the USA (apart from some New England accents, like Boston), Canada, Ireland, Scotland and the West Country of England (as well as some small areas in the north of the country). English spoken in Asia is generally rhotic due to the influence of American English (with the notable exception of non-rhotic former British colony Hong Kong), and in Africa non-rhotic due to the influence of British English.

The frequency of the pronunciation of r seemed to gradually decrease in Britain from the 15th century onwards, though it began to become fashionable not to pronounce one’s r‘s in the late 18th century, leading to a rapid decline of rhoticity in England, and by the early 19th century, the non-rhotic accent was the dominant one in England.

Rhoticity likely survived in North America due to geographical isolation from linguistic trends in Britain; and in Ireland, Scotland and the west of England due to the influence of rhotic Celtic languages on English there.

But it’s not as though people with non-rhotic accents never pronounce the letter r. There’s at the beginning of words, obviously. After that, the most common case in which the r is pronounced is when a word ending in r is followed by a word beginning with a vowel. In order to link the two words together and avoid an awkward stop between them, the r sound is pronounced, as in Simply add water and flour. This is known as a linking /r/.

Closing related to this is the intrusive /r/. This occurs when one word ends and the following word begins with a vowel sound (not all vowel sounds, but most of them). In order to avoid another awkward stop, an r sound is added between the two vowel sounds to link them together. This is commonly done in cases where a sounds come together, as in pasta and pizza and Georgia Allenby above. Most non-rhotic speakers would pronounce those instinctively as pastaranpizza and GeorgiarAllenby.

We rhotic speakers aren’t so bothered by the awkward pauses non-rhotic speakers add an r to avoid. We deal with them by adding a glottal stop: a barely noticeable consonantal sound producing by momentarily restricting airflow in the vocal tract. Think of the t sound in Batman, mountain, and butter in American English, or the gap in the middle of Uh oh!

This might all sound quite technical, but these are some of the most distinctive differences between different accents, and often the first things impressionists pick up on, even if we’re not completely conscious of them. And isn’t it great that we have such a variety of accents?

11 thoughts on “Putting the “R” in Accents

    • And I think even then we’re not really conscious of the difference, even though we hear it. I only really thought about it at the start of my teaching career when I saw a pronunciation book say that the “r” in “flower” is silent.

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  1. I watched most of Casino Royale thinking that the main female character was called “Vespa” (as in the scooter) because that was the way James Bond pronounced it. It was only when he wrote her name down that I saw it was “Vesper” (as in a monk’s evening prayer).

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    • That’s really interesting: the difference between a wasp and a prayer! Wonder how it would have affected your attitude towards the character differently if you knew the spelling from the start.

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  2. Exactly, I always used to wonder as to why people with a British accent added the ‘r’ sound while connecting words like the example you gave of ‘pasta rand’. I went in the net to look this up, glad to know I wasn’t the only one who kept thinking of this 🙂

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