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Rhotic and non-rhotic accents

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Rhotic and non-rhotic accents

In linguistic terms, non-rhotic accents are said to exclude the sound /r/ from the syllable coda before a consonant or prosodic break. This is commonly (if misleadingly) referred to as "post-vocalic R".

Rhotic and non-rhotic accents in English

English pronunciation can be divided into two main accent groups: a rhotic (/ˈrtɨk/, sometimes /ˈrɒtɨk/) speaker pronounces a rhotic consonant in words like hard and butter; a non-rhotic speaker does not. That is, rhotic speakers pronounce /ɹ/ (English R) in nearly all positions of a word, while non-rhotic speakers pronounce /ɹ/ only if it is followed by a vowel sound in the same phrase or prosodic unit (see "linking and intrusive R"). Therefore, when pronounced by a non-rhotic speaker, the word butter would sound like buttuh /ˈbʌtə/. Non-rhoticity is featured in many accents in England (including "Received Pronunciation"), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Jamaica, small pockets in India and surrounding areas, the New England region of the United States, notably Boston and New York City, among others, and can be a feature in small pockets in Atlantic Canada, particularly Lunenburg English.

Development of non-rhotic accents

The earliest traces of a loss of /r/ in English are found in the environment before /s/ in spellings from the mid-15th century: the Oxford English Dictionary reports bace for earlier barse (today "bass", the fish) in 1440 and passel for parcel in 1468. In the 1630s, the word juggernaut is first attested, which represents the Sanskrit word jagannāth, meaning "lord of the universe". The English spelling uses the digraph er to represent a Hindi sound close to the English schwa. Loss of coda /r/ apparently became widespread in southern England during the 18th century; John Walker uses the spelling ar to indicate the broad A of aunt in his 1775 dictionary and reports that card is pronounced "caad" in 1791 (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006: 47).

Non-rhotic speakers pronounce an /r/ in red, and most pronounce it in torrid and watery, where R is followed by a vowel, but not in hard, nor in car or water when those words are said in isolation. However, in most non-rhotic accents, if a word ending in written "r" is followed closely by a word beginning with a vowel, the /r/ is pronounced—as in water ice. This phenomenon is referred to as "linking R". Many non-rhotic speakers also insert an epenthetic /r/ between vowels when the first vowel is one that can occur before syllable-final r (drawring for drawing). This so-called "intrusive R" has been stigmatized, but even speakers of so-called Received Pronunciation frequently "intrude" an epenthetic /r/ at word boundaries, especially where one or both vowels is schwa; for example the idea of it becomes the idea-r-of it, Australia and New Zealand becomes Australia-r-and New Zealand, the formerly well-known India-r-Office and "Laura Norder" (Law and Order). The typical alternative used by RP speakers is to insert a glottal stop where an intrusive R would otherwise be placed.[1]

For non-rhotic speakers, what was historically a vowel plus /r/ is now usually realized as a long vowel. So in Received Pronunciation (RP) and many other non-rhotic accents card, fern, born are pronounced [kɑːd], [fɜːn], [bɔːn] or something similar; the pronunciations vary from accent to accent. This length may be retained in phrases, so while car pronounced in isolation is [kɑː], car owner is [kɑːɹəʊnə]. But a final schwa usually remains short, so water in isolation is [wɔːtə]. In RP and similar accents the vowels /iː/ and /uː/ (or /ʊ/), when followed by r, become diphthongs ending in schwa, so near is [nɪə] and poor is [pʊə], though these have other realizations as well, including monophthongal ones; once again, the pronunciations vary from accent to accent. The same happens to diphthongs followed by R, though these may be considered to end in /ər/ in rhotic speech, and it is the /ər/ that reduces to schwa as usual in non-rhotic speech: tire said in isolation is [taɪə] and sour is [saʊə].[2] For some speakers, some long vowels alternate with a diphthong ending in schwa, so wear may be [wɛə] but wearing [wɛːɹiŋ].

Mergers characteristic of non-rhotic accents

Some phonemic mergers are characteristic of non-rhotic accents. These usually include one item that historically contained an R (lost in the non-rhotic accent), and one that never did so. The section below lists mergers in order of approximately decreasing prevalence.

Panda–pander merger
In the terminology of Wells (1982), this consists of the merger of the lexical sets commA and lettER. It is found in all or nearly all non-rhotic accents,[3] and is even present in some accents that are in other respects rhotic, such as those of some speakers in Jamaica and the Bahamas.[3]
Father–farther merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets PALM and START. It is found in the speech of the great majority of non-rhotic speakers, including those of England, Wales, the United States, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It may be absent in some non-rhotic speakers in the Bahamas.[3]
Pawn–porn merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets THOUGHT and NORTH. It is found in the same accents as the father–farther merger described above, but is absent from the Bahamas and Guyana.[3]
Caught–court merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets THOUGHT and FORCE. It is found in those non-rhotic accents containing the pawnporn merger that have also undergone the horse–hoarse merger. These include the accents of Southern England, Wales, non-rhotic New York City speakers, Trinidad and the Southern hemisphere. In such accents a three-way merger awe-or-ore/oar results.
Calve–carve merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets BATH and START. It is found in some non-rhotic accents with broad A in words like "bath". It is general in southern England (excluding rhotic speakers), Trinidad, the Bahamas, and the Southern hemisphere. It is a possibility for Welsh, Eastern New England, Jamaican, and Guyanese speakers.
Paw–poor merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets THOUGHT and CURE. It is found in those non-rhotic accents containing the caughtcourt merger that have also undergone the pour–poor merger. Wells lists it unequivocally only for the accent of Trinidad, but it is an option for non-rhotic speakers in England, Australia and New Zealand. Such speakers have a potential four–way merger taw-tor-tore-tour.[4]
Batted–battered merger

This merger is present in non-rhotic accents which have undergone the weak-vowel merger. Such accents include Australian, New Zealand, most South African speech, and some non-rhotic English speech (e.g. Norfolk, Sheffield).

A large number of homophonous pairs involve the syllabic -es and agentive -ers suffixes, such as merges-mergers and bleaches-bleachers. Because there are so many, they are excluded from the list of homophonous pairs below.

Dough–door merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets GOAT and FORCE. It may be found in some southern U.S. non-rhotic speech, some speakers of African American Vernacular English, some speakers in Guyana and some Welsh speech.[3]
Show–sure merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets GOAT and CURE. It may be present in those speakers who have both the dough–door merger described above, and also the pour–poor merger. These include some southern U.S. non-rhotic speakers, some speakers of African American Vernacular English and some speakers in Guyana.[3]
Often–orphan merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets CLOTH and NORTH. It may be present in old-fashioned Eastern New England accents,[5] New York City speakers[6] and also in some speakers in Jamaica and Guyana. The merger was also until recently present in the dialects of southern England, including Received Pronunciation—specifically, the phonemic merger of the words often and orphan was a running gag in the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, The Pirates of Penzance.
God–guard merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets LOT and START. It may be present in non-rhotic accents that have undergone the father–bother merger. These may include some New York accents,[8] some southern U.S. accents,[9] and African American Vernacular English.[10]
Shot–short merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets LOT and NORTH. It may be present in some Eastern New England accents.[11][12]
Bud–bird merger
A merger of /ɜː(r)/ and /ʌ/ occurring for some speakers of Jamaican English making bud and bird homophones as /bʌd/.[13] The conversion of /ɜː/ to [ʌ] or [ə] is also found in places scattered around England and Scotland. Some speakers, mostly rural, in the area from London to Norfolk exhibit this conversion, mainly before voiceless fricatives. This gives pronunciation like first [fʌst] and worse [wʌs]. The word cuss appears to derive from the application of this sound change to the word curse. Similarly, lurve is coined from love.
Oil–earl merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets CHOICE and NURSE preconsonantally. It was present in older New York accents, but became stigmatized and is sharply recessive in those born since the Second World War.[14] This merger is known for the word soitanly, used often by the Three Stooges comedian Curly Howard as a variant of certainly, in comedy shorts of the 1930s and 1940s.
Other mergers

In some accents, syllabification may interact with rhoticity, resulting in homophones where non-rhotic accents have centering diphthongs. Possibilities include Korea–career,[15] Shi'a–sheer, and Maia–mire,[16] while skua may be identical with the second syllable of obscure.[17]


Examples of rhotic accents are: Scottish English, Mid Ulster English, Canadian English and most varieties of American English and Irish English. Non-rhotic accents include most accents of England, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa.

Most speakers of most of North American English are rhotic, as are speakers from Barbados, Scotland and most of Ireland.

In England, rhotic accents are found in the West Country (south and west of a line from near Shrewsbury to around Portsmouth), the Corby area, most of Lancashire (north and west of the centre of Manchester), some parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and in the areas that border Scotland. The prestige form, however, exerts a steady pressure towards non-rhoticity. Thus the urban speech of Bristol or Southampton is more accurately described as variably rhotic, the degree of rhoticity being reduced as one moves up the class and formality scales.[19]

Most speakers of Indian English,[20] and Pakistani English,[21] have a rhotic accent. Other areas with rhotic accents include Otago and Southland in the far south of New Zealand's South Island, where a Scottish influence is apparent.

Areas with non-rhotic accents include Australia, most of the Caribbean, most of England (including Received Pronunciation speakers), most of New Zealand, Wales, Hong Kong, Singapore and areas of South Africa.

Canada is entirely rhotic except for small isolated areas in southwestern New Brunswick, parts of Newfoundland, and the Lunenburg English variety spoken in Lunenburg and Shelburne Counties, Nova Scotia.[22]

In the United States, much of the South was once non-rhotic, but in recent decades non-rhotic speech has declined. Today, non-rhoticity in Southern American English is found primarily among older speakers, and only in some areas such as central and southern Alabama, Savannah, Georgia, and Norfolk, Virginia,[23] as well as in the y'at accent of New Orleans. Parts of New England, especially Boston, are non-rhotic, as are New York City and surrounding areas. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is largely non-rhotic.

In some non-rhotic Southern American and AAVE accents, there is no linking r, that is, /r/ at the end of a word is deleted even when the following word starts with a vowel, so that "Mister Adams" is pronounced [mɪstə(ʔ)ˈædəmz].[24] In a few such accents, intervocalic /r/ is deleted before an unstressed syllable even within a word when the following syllable begins with a vowel. In such accents, pronunciations like [kæəˈlaːnə] for Carolina, or [bɛːˈʌp] for "bear up" are heard.[25] This pronunciation also occurs in AAVE.[26]

The English spoken in Asia, India,[20] and the Philippines is predominantly rhotic. In the case of the Philippines, this may be explained because the English that is spoken there is heavily influenced by the American dialect. In addition, many East Asians (in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) who have a good command of English generally have rhotic accents because of the influence of American English. This excludes Hong Kong, whose RP English dialect is a result of its almost 150-year-history as a British Crown colony (later British dependent territory).

Other Asian regions with non-rhotic English are Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. Spoken English in Myanmar is non-rhotic, but there are a number of English speakers with a rhotic or partially rhotic pronunciation.

Other languages

Other Germanic languages

The rhotic consonant is dropped or vocalized under similar conditions in other Germanic languages, notably German, Danish and some dialects of southern Sweden (possibly because of its Danish history). In most varieties of German, /r/ in the syllable coda is frequently realized as a vowel or a semivowel, [ɐ] or [ɐ̯]. In the traditional standard pronunciation, this happens only in the unstressed ending -er and after long vowels: for example besser [ˈbɛsɐ], sehr [zeːɐ̯]. In common speech, the vocalization is usual after short vowels as well, and additional contractions may occur: for example Dorn [dɔɐ̯n] ~ [dɔːn], hart [haɐ̯t] ~ [haːt]. Similarly, Danish /r/ after a vowel is, unless followed by a stressed vowel, either pronounced [ɐ̯] (mor "mother" [moɐ̯], næring "nourishment" [ˈnɛɐ̯eŋ]) or merged with the preceding vowel while usually influencing its vowel quality (/a(ː)r/ and /ɔːr/ or /ɔr/ are realised as long vowels [aː] and [ɒː], and /ər/, /rə/ and /rər/ are all pronounced [ɐ]) (løber "runner" [ˈløːb̥ɐ], Søren Kierkegaard (personal name) [ˌsœːɐn ˈkʰiɐ̯ɡ̊əˌɡ̊ɒːˀ]).


In Asturian, word final /r/ is always lost in infinitives if they are followed by an enclitic pronoun, and this is reflected in the writing; e.g. The infinitive form dar [ðar] plus the 3rd plural dative pronoun "-yos" da-yos [ðaˈʝos̻] (give to them) or the accusative form "los" dalos [ðaˈlos̻] (give them). This will happen even in southern dialects where the infinitive form will be "dare" [ða're], and both the /r/ and the vowel will drop (da-yos, not *dáre-yos). However, most of the speakers also drop the rhotics in the infinitive before a lateral consonant of a different word, and this doesn't show in the writing. e.g. dar los dos [ðaː los̻ dos̻] (give the two [things]). This doesn't occur in the middle of words. e.g. the name Carlos [kar'los̻].


In Catalan, word final /r/ is lost in coda position not only in suffixes on nouns and adjectives denoting the masculine singular (written as -r) but also in the "-ar, -er, -ir" suffixes of infinitives; e.g. forner [furˈne] "(male) baker", fer [ˈfe] "to do", lluir [ʎuˈi] "to shine, to look good". However, rhotics are "recovered" when followed by the feminine suffix -a [ə], and when infinitives have single or multiple enclitic pronouns (notice the two rhotics are neutralized in the coda, with a tap [ɾ] occurring between vowels, and a trill [r] elsewhere); e.g. fornera [furˈneɾə] "(female) baker", fer-lo [ˈferɫu] "to do it (masc.)", fer-ho [ˈfeɾu] "to do it/that/so", lluir-se [ʎuˈir.sə] "to excel, to show off".

Chinese languages

In Mandarin, many words are pronounced with the coda [ɻ], originally a diminutive ending. But this happens only in some areas, mainly in the Northern region, notably including Beijing; in other areas it tends to be omitted. But in words with an inherent coda, such as [ɑ̂ɻ] "two", the [ɻ] is pronounced.

Indonesian and Malaysian Malay

In Indonesian, which is a form of Malay, the final /r/ is pronounced, while it is not in the various forms of Malay spoken on the Malay Peninsula.


Historical final /r/ has been lost from all Khmer dialects but Northern.


In some dialects of Brazilian Portuguese, /r/ is unpronounced or aspirated. This occurs most frequently with verbs in the infinitive, which is always indicated by a word-final /r/. In some states, however, it happens mostly with any /r/ when preceding a consonant.


Among the Spanish dialects, Andalusian Spanish, Caribbean Spanish (descended from and still closely related to Andalusian and Canarian Spanish), Castúo (Spanish dialect of Extremadura) and the Argentine dialect spoken in the Tucumán province have an unpronounced word-final /r/, especially in infinitives which mirrors the situation in some dialects of Brazilian Portuguese. However, in the Caribbean forms, word-final /r/ in infinitives and non-infinitives is often in free variation with word-final /l/ and may relax to the point of being articulated as /i/.


Among the Turkic languages, Uyghur displays more or less the same feature, as syllable-final /r/ is dropped, while the preceding vowel is lengthened: for example Uyghurlar [ʔʊɪˈʁʊːlaː]Uyghurs’. The /r/ may, however, sometimes be pronounced in unusually "careful" or "pedantic" speech; in such cases, it is often mistakenly inserted after long vowels even when there is no phonemic /r/ there.


Similarly in Yaqui, an indigenous language of northern Mexico, intervocalic or syllable-final /r/ is often dropped with lengthening of the previous vowel: pariseo becomes [paːˈseo], sewaro becomes [sewajo].

Effect on spelling

Spellings based on non-rhotic pronunciation of dialectal or foreign words can result in mispronunciations if read by rhotic speakers. In addition to juggernaut mentioned above, the following are found:

  • "Er", to indicate a filled pause, as a British spelling of what Americans would render "uh".
  • The Korean family name 박 (Bak/Pak) usually written "Park" in English.
  • The game Parcheesi.
  • British English slang words:
    • "char" for "cha" from the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of 茶 (= "tea" (the drink))
    • "nark" (= "informer") from Romany "nāk" (= "nose").
  • In Rudyard Kipling's books:
    • "dorg" instead of "dawg" for a drawled pronunciation of "dog".
    • Hindu god name Kama misspelled as "Karma" (which refers to a concept in several Asian religions, not a god).
    • Hindustani कागज़ "kāgaz" (= "paper") spelled as "kargaz".
  • "Burma" and "Myanmar" for Burmese [bəmà] and [mjàmmà].
  • Transliteration of Cantonese words and names, such as char siu (叉燒, Jyutping: caa1 siu1) and Wong Kar-wai (王家衛, Jyutping: Wong4 Gaa1wai6)
  • The spelling of "schoolmarm" for "school ma'am".

See also



  • Harris, John. 2006. pdf). Accessed March 24, 2007.
  • Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. 2006. The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
  • Pollock, K., et al. 1998. "Phonological Features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE)". Accessed March 24, 2007.
  • Wells, J. C. Accents of English. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

External links

  • William Labov et al., dealing with rhotic and non-rhotic accents in the U.S. (PDF file)
  • FAQ
  • Rhotic or non-rhotic English?, Pétur Knútsson, University of Iceland
  • 'Hover & Hear' accents of English from around the world, both rhotic and non-rhotic.
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