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English pronunciation is divided into two main accent groups, the rhotic and non-rhotic, depending on when the phoneme /r/ (realized as an alveolar approximant [ɹ] in most dialects) is pronounced. Rhotic speakers pronounce written /r/ in all positions, while non-rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ only if it is followed by a vowel sound (see "linking R"). In linguistic terms, non-rhotic accents are said to exclude /r/ in the syllable coda. This is commonly referred to as post-vocalic "r", although that term can be misleading because not all "r"s that occur after vowels are excluded in non-rhotic English.
Development of nonrhotic accents
On this map of England, the red areas are where the rural accents were rhotic as of the 1950s. Based on H. Orton et al., Survey of English dialects
(1962–71). Note that some areas with partial rhoticity (for example parts of the East Riding of Yorkshire) are not shaded on this map.
Red areas are where English dialects of the late 20th century were rhotic. Based on P. Trudgil, The Dialects of England
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 Hindi 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).
A non-rhotic speaker pronounces the [ɹ] in red, torrid, watery (in each case the [ɹ] is followed by a vowel) but not the written "r" of hard, nor that of car or water. However, in most non-rhotic accents, if a word ending in written "r" is followed closely by another word beginning with a vowel, the [ɹ] is pronounced—as in water ice. This phenomenon is referred to as "linking R". Many non-rhotic speakers also insert epenthetic [ɹ]s between vowels (drawring for drawing). This so-called "intrusive R" is frowned upon by those who use the non-rhotic Received Pronunciation but even they frequently "intrude" an epenthetic [ɹ] 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.
For non-rhotic speakers, what was historically a vowel plus [ɹ] is now usually realized as a long vowel. So car, hard, fur, born are phonetically /kɑː/, /hɑːd/, /fɜː/, /bɔːn/. This length is retained in phrases, so car owner is /kɑːɹəʊnə/. But a final schwa remains short, so water is /wɔːtə/. For some speakers some long vowels alternate with a diphthong ending in schwa, so wear is /wɛə/ but wearing is /wɛːɹiŋ/. Some pairs of words with distinct pronunciations in rhotic accents are homophones in many non-rhotic accents. Examples in Received Pronunciation include father and farther; draws and drawers; formally and formerly; area and airier. In Australian English, which has the weak vowel merger, pairs like batted/battered or boxes/boxers are also homonyms. Syllabication interacts with rhoticity: sheer and Shi'a respectively have one and two syllables; in some non-rhotic speech, this may be insufficient for distinguishing them.
The red areas are those where non-rhotic pronunciations are found among some whites in the United States. AAVE-influenced non-rhotic pronunciations may be found among blacks throughout the country. Map based on Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 48)
Distribution of rhotic and nonrhotic accents
Specific examples of rhotic accents are: Mid-Ulster English and General American. Non-rhotic accents are for example Received Pronounciation, Estuary English, and Australian English.
Most speakers of American English have a rhotic accent. Outside of the United States, rhotic accents can be found in Barbados, most of Canada, Ireland and Scotland. In England, rhotic accents are found in the West Country, and parts of Lancashire; they were traditionally across the whole of Lancashire and bordering parts of Yorkshire, Northumberland and rural parts of south-east England, although the younger generation are more likely to be non-rhotic in these areas. Other areas with rhotic accents include India (particularly in southern India and Maharashtra where the R's are rolled), Philippines, and Otago and Southland in the far south of New Zealand's South Island, where a small Scottish influence is apparent.
Areas with non-rhotic accents include Africa, Australia, Malta, most of the Caribbean, most of England (especially Received Pronunciation speakers), most of New Zealand and Wales. Singapore and Malaysia are also two examples of countries in Asia with a non-rhotic accent.
In Canada, non-rhotic accents have been reported in southwestern New Brunswick, various isolated parts of Newfoundland, and Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia.
In the United States, large parts of The South were formerly non-rhotic, but this is sharply recessive. Today, non-rhoticity in Southern American English is found primarily among older speakers, and only in some areas like New Orleans, southern Alabama, Savannah, Georgia, and Norfolk, Virginia (Labov, Ash, and Bomberg 2006: 47-48). Parts of New England are non-rhotic as well as New York City and surrounding areas. The case of New York is especially interesting because of a classic study in sociolinguistics by William Labov showing that the non-rhotic accent is associated with older and middle- and lower-class speakers, and is being replaced by the rhotic accent. African American Vernacular English is largely non-rhotic.
There are a few accents of Southern American English where intervocalic [ɹ] is deleted before an unstressed syllable. In such accents, pronunciations like [kæəlaːnə] for Carolina are heard)
In some dialects of American English, people will add an /ɹ/ to certain words through hypercorrection, the most common examples being /wɔɹʃ/, /ˈwɔɹtɚ/, /aɪˈdiɚ/ and /dɹɔɹ/ for wash, water, idea and draw. This hypercorrection also occurs in the Canadian and British English pronunciation of /ˈkɑɹki/ for khaki, although this is fading over time and many young Canadians now use the American pronunciation of /ˈkæki/.
Similar phenomena in other languages
The rhotic consonant is dropped or vocalised under similar conditions in other Germanic languages, notably German and Danish. In most varieties of German, /r/ in the syllable coda is frequently realised as a vowel or a semivowel, [ɐ] or [ɐ̯], especially in the unstressed ending -er and after long vowels: for example sehr [zeːɐ̯], besser [ˈbɛsɐ]. Similarly, Danish /r/ after a vowel is, unless preceded by a stressed vowel, either pronounced as [ɐ̯] (mor "mother" [moɐ̯ˀ], næring "nourishment" [ˈnɛɐ̯eŋ]) or merged with the preceding vowel while usually influencing its quality (/a(ː)r/ and /ɔːr/ / /ɔr/ are realised as long vowels [aː] and [ɒː], and /ər/, /rə/ and /rər/ are all pronounced as [ɐ]) (løber "runner" [ˈløːb̥ɐ], Søren Kierkegaard (personal name) [ˌsœːɐn ˈkʰiɐ̯g̊əˌg̊ɒːˀ]) .
- Rhotic consonant
- R-colored vowel
- Linking R
- Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. 2006. The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
- Chapter 7 of the Atlas of North American English by William Labov et al., dealing with rhotic and non-rhotic accents in the U.S. (PDF file)
- Rhotic vs non-rhotic, intrusive "r" from the alt.usage.english newsgroup's FAQ
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