A most British English pronunciation rule.
One of the easiest rules to learn when studying British English pronunciation is that of the silent < r >. It really is very simple:
Only say an < r > when it appears before a vowel sound.
Never say an < r > when it appears before a consonant or at the end of a word.
So in the word ‘fork’, you don’t say the < r > because there is a consonant after it. In the name ‘Charlie’ you don’t say the < r > for the same reason. However in the word ‘grass’ we do say the < r > because there is a vowel sound after it.
The rule also works to join words together. For example, consider the word ‘mother’. We normally would not say the < r > because it is at the end of the word, however, if a vowel sound begins the next word, we do pronounce it to join the words:
the < r > effectively moves on to the beginning of the word ‘and’.
Sometimes, native speakers join words together with an /r/ even if there is no < r > in the spelling, some examples are:
China_and India / My idea_of a joke
This occurs when a schwa appears at the end of a word, followed by another vowel sound, although some speakers would argue that it is not correct to join in this way.
Rhoticity & Accents
The technical term for an accent that does not pronounce < r > sounds in syllable-final positions is ‘Non-Rhotic’, so a lot of British English accents are known as non-rhotic. American English is mainly rhotic – speakers say every written < r >. This is, however, a generalisation, as there are areas of Britain that are rhotic, and areas of America that are non-rhotic.
Problems for Non-native speakers.
Although nearly all students who come to Pronunciation Studio are rhotic in their own language and therefore normally rhotic in English, it is normally something that students can improve quite quickly. In fact the < r > spelling tells us a lot about which vowel sound to pronounce, so it is really our friend. On strong syllables, the < r > after a vowel sound always indicates a long vowel: /ɑ:/ for car, /ɔ:/ for four, /ɜ:/ for bird, /eə/ for where, or /ɪə/ for ‘near’. On a weak syllable it nearly always indicates /ə/ for mother.
Ready to test your knowledge of silent ‘r’? Take the silent ‘r’ class. The lesson includes drills and an exercise, all with audio.