‘r’ – the strangest sound in English?
One of the most common sounds in English, but also one of the most difficult for learners. /r/ is both tricky to pronounce, and tricky not to pronounce. In this article we’re going to conquer this strangest of English sounds. Sort of.
How to pronounce /r/.
To make an English /r/ you do 2 things. Firstly you move your tongue behind the gum behind the top teeth (the alveolar ridge) without touching it, and at the same time, you lift your top teeth off your bottom lip. So it should sound like this: /r/. It shouldn’t sound like [r] or [χ] or [ɽ] or [ɺ] . The key is not to touch the tongue onto the gum at all. In fact, as a sound, it’s like the English weather – a bit vague.
Silent ‘r’ (or how not to pronounce /r/).
One of the biggest challenges of /r/ is not how to say it, rather how not to say it, because it is silent an awful lot in British English. The rule is simple – if ‘r’ is followed by a vowel sound, say it, in all other places don’t say it. This is harder than it first appears – on a strong syllable, it will normally make a long vowel, on a weak syllable it’s probably a schwa sound – /ə/. A good example is the word ‘further’ – /ˈfɜːðə/, there is no /r/ sound and the stressed syllable is long.
There are ‘r’s everywhere!
Don’t be fooled by a silent vowel after an /r/ like in ‘there‘, ‘are‘, ‘aren’t’, ‘were‘, ‘here‘ to mention a few. The ‘e’ at the end is not pronounced so neither is the ‘r’. That’s why ‘aren’t’ sounds the same as ‘aunt’ – your mother or father‘s sister.
We follow the rule for silent /r/ between words too, so if a word like ‘mother’ or ‘there’ ends with ‘r’, we will pronounce that ‘r’ if the next word begins with a vowel. In ‘mother and daughter’ – we said the /r/ in mother but not in daughter. ‘There are other things’ includes /r/ sounds in the first two words, but not the third word as it is followed by a consonant sound in ‘things’. The only alternative to linking this way is to pause between each word but most speakers find there are other, more important, things to do.
The weirdest thing about ‘r’ is that it appears where it is not written. Like in the drink “vodka and tonic” – we say an /r/ because vodka ends in a schwa sound and is followed by another vowel. This is known as ‘intrusive r’ and some people seem to think it’s wrong, then do it anyway without realising. Other examples would be “China Express”, and the English actor “Gemma Arteton”.
law, awe & iron.
An intrusive /r/ can also occur after the vowel sound /ɔː/ even when spelt with a ‘w’ – so in the phrase “law and order”, the only /r/ sound is in fact a ‘w’, which is… awe-inspiring. Lots of people say this is wrong, they would say “law and order”,”awe-inspiring”, but they may be in the minority. And while we’re on the subject of weird ‘r’s, you don’t say an /r/ in the word “iron” – it’s a one-off. Good, I’m glad we’ve ironed that out.
Not all British accents pronounce ‘r’ in the same way. Scottish generally uses a tap [ɾ]. as do very very posh accents before weak vowels, “hurry up Harry!” It is also becoming more common for speakers all over England not to move their tongue when pronouncing /r/ – like ex BBC presenter Jonathan Ross – so it sounds a bit like /w/, hence the nickname ‘wossy’. Brilliant, that couldn’t be clearer.
Some British accents don’t contain silent ‘r’s – Scottish, West Country and Irish are all ‘rhotic’ – you pronounce every written ‘r’. General American English is rhotic too, but you know what the English are like, don’t you? They’ll do anything to be different and confuse everyone, so GB English is non-rhotic. If you want to do a neutral British accent – read this article aloud without pronouncing any of the ‘r’s in red – superb.
This article uses English IPA symbols – learn each of them with pronunciation notes, diagrams and audio in Pronunciation Studio’s free Starter Pack.