Pronunciation of English /r/

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Pronunciation of the phoneme /r/ in the English language has many variations in different dialects.


Depending on dialect, /r/ has at least the following allophones in varieties of English around the world:

  • Standard English R: postalveolar approximant [ɹ̠] (the most common native speaker's realization of the /r/ phoneme, occurring in most dialects, Received Pronunciation and General American included)
  • "Retroflex" R: retroflex approximant [ɻ] (occurs in most Irish dialects and some American dialects)
  • "Labial" or "Rounded" R: labiodental approximant [ʋ] (occurs in some south-east England and London accents as a presumed idiosyncrasy, though this is disputed, as is its overlap with rhotacism; see § R-labialization below)
  • "Flapped" or "Tapped" R: alveolar flap [ɾ] (occurs in most Scottish and some South African dialects, Scouse, some conservative dialects in Ireland and Northern England, and early twentieth-century Received Pronunciation; not to be confused with flapping of /t/ and /d/)
  • "Trilled" or "Rolled" R: alveolar trill [r] (occurs in Afrikaans dialects, some very conservative Scottish dialects, and on Jersey)
  • "Uvular" R: voiced uvular fricative [ʁ] (occurs in northern Northumbria, though largely disappeared; known as the Northumbrian burr)

In most dialects /r/ is labialized [ɹ̠ʷ] in many positions, as in reed [ɹʷiːd] and tree [tɹ̥ʷiː]; in the latter case, the /t/ may be slightly labialized as well.[1] In General American, it is labialized at the beginning of a word but not at the end.[citation needed]

In many dialects, /r/ in the cluster /dr/, as in dream, is realized as a postalveolar fricative [ɹ̠˔] or less commonly alveolar [ɹ̝]. In /tr/, as in tree, it is a voiceless postalveolar fricative [ɹ̠̊˔] or less commonly alveolar [ɹ̝̊].[2] In England, while the approximant has become the most common realization, /r/ may still be pronounced as a voiceless tap [ɾ̥] after /θ/ (as in thread).[3]

There are two primary articulations of the approximant /r/: apical (with the tip of the tongue approaching the alveolar ridge or even curled back slightly) and domal (with a centralized bunching of the tongue known as "molar r" or sometimes "bunched r" or "braced r"). Peter Ladefoged wrote: "Many BBC English speakers have the tip of the tongue raised towards the roof of the mouth in the general location of the alveolar ridge, but many American English speakers simply bunch the body of the tongue up so that it is hard to say where the articulation is".[4] The extension to the IPA recommends the use of the IPA diacritics for "apical" and "centralized", as in ⟨ɹ̺, ɹ̈⟩, to distinguish apical and domal articulations in transcription. However, this distinction has little or no acoustic or auditory consequence, and may vary idiosyncratically between individuals.[5]

Rhoticity and non-rhoticity

All English accents around the world can be classified as either rhotic or non-rhotic. The historical English /r/ phoneme is not pronounced except when followed by a vowel sound in non-rhotic accents, which comprise the majority of accents in England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. However, the historical /r/ is pronounced in all contexts in rhotic accents, which comprise the majority in Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Canada. Thus, a rhotic accent pronounces marker as /ˈmɑrkər/, while a non-rhotic accent pronounces the same word as /ˈmɑːkə/.

In non-rhotic accents, such as Received Pronunciation and Australian English, /r/ is subject to the phonotactic constraint that it can only appear before a vowel. In some rhotic accents, such as General American, /r/ when not followed by a vowel is realized as an r-coloring of the preceding vowel or its coda: nurse [nɝs], butter [ˈbʌtɚ].


R-labialization, not to be confused with the rounding of initial /r/ described above, is a process occurring in certain dialects of English, particularly some varieties of Cockney, in which the /r/ phoneme is realized as a labiodental approximant [ʋ] in contrast to an alveolar approximant [ɹ]. To English-speakers not used to [ʋ], it is nearly indistinguishable from /w/.

Use of labiodental /r/ is commonly stigmatized by prescriptivists. Regardless, it is used in many other languages and its use is growing in many accents of British English.[6] Most speakers who do so are from the southeast of England, particularly London. It is also occasionally heard in some speakers of the Boston accent but more often in an exaggerated parody of those dialects.

It has also been reported to be an extremely rare realization of /r/ in New Zealand English.[7]

The /r/ realization may not always be labiodental: bilabial and velarized labiodental realizations have been reported.

R-labialization leads to pronunciations such as the following:

  • red – [ʋɛd]
  • ring – [ʋɪŋ]
  • rabbit – [ˈʋæbɪt]
  • Merry Christmas – [mɛʋi ˈkʋɪsməs]

However, replacement of /r/ by some kind of labial approximant may also occur as symptom of a speech defect called rhotacism or, more precisely, derhotacization.

See also


  1. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (2001). Vowels and Consonants (4th ed.). Blackwell. p. 103.
  2. ^ Gimson, Alfred Charles (2014). Cruttenden, Alan, ed. Gimson's Pronunciation of English (8th ed.). Routledge. pp. 177, 186–8. ISBN 9781444183092.
  3. ^ Ogden, Richard (2009). An Introduction to English Phonetics. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 90–2. ISBN 9780748625413.
  4. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (2001). A Course in Phonetics. Harcourt College Publishers. p. 55.
  5. ^ Laver, John (1994). Principles of Phonetics. Cambridge. p. 300.
  6. ^ Foulkes, Paul, and Gerard J. Docherty. (eds.) (1999). Urban Voices. Arnold
  7. ^ Bauer, Laurie; Warren, Paul; Bardsley, Dianne; Kennedy, Marianna; Major, George (2007), "New Zealand English", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 37 (1): 100, doi:10.1017/S0025100306002830
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