Rhoticity in English

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Rhoticity in English refers to the situations in which English speakers pronounce the historical rhotic consonant /r/, and is one of the most prominent distinctions by which English varieties can be classified. In rhotic varieties of English, speakers pronounce /r/ in all instances, while in non-rhotic varieties, speakers no longer pronounce /r/ in postvocalic environments – that is, when it is not followed by a vowel.[1][2] For example, a rhotic English speaker pronounces the words hard and butter approximately as /ˈhɑrd/ and /ˈbʌtər/, whereas a non-rhotic speaker "drops" or "deletes" the /r/ sound, pronouncing them approximately as /ˈhɑːd/ and /ˈbʌtə/. A non-rhotic speaker would still pronounce the /r/ in the words run, tree and very, and usually in the continuously spoken phrase butter and jam (the linking R), since in these cases the /r/ is followed by a vowel.

The English dialects of Scotland, Ireland, and most of the United States and Canada preserve historical /r/, and are thus termed the rhotic varieties.[2] The non-rhotic varieties, in which historical /r/ has been lost except before vowels, include most dialects of England—except the South West, the southern West Midlands, and parts of Lancashire—as well as the English dialects of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some parts of the southern and eastern coastal United States.[2]

Loss of postvocalic /r/ began sporadically in informal speech in the 15th century, and by the 17th century postvocalic /r/ was weakened but still universally present. In the mid-18th century it was still pronounced in most environments, but may occasionally have been deleted entirely, especially after low vowels. By the 1790s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation had become common in London and surrounding areas, and was increasing in use. By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety.


Red areas indicate where rural accents were rhotic in the 1950s. Based on H. Orton et al., Survey of English Dialects (1962–71). 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. Trudgill, The Dialects of England.

The earliest traces of a loss of /r/ in English appear in the early 15th century and occur before coronal consonants, especially /s/, giving modern "ass (buttocks)" (Old English ears, Middle English ers or ars), and "bass (fish)" (OE bærs, ME bars).[2] A second phase of /r/-loss began during the 15th century, and was characterized by sporadic and lexically variable deletion, such as monyng "morning" and cadenall "cardinal".[2] These /r/-less spellings appear throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, but are uncommon and are restricted to private documents, especially ones written by women.[2] No English authorities describe loss of /r/ in the standard language prior to the mid-18th century, and many do not fully accept it until the 1790s.[2]

During the mid-17th century, a number of sources describe /r/ as being weakened but still present.[2] The English playwright Ben Jonson's English Grammar, published posthumously in 1640, records that /r/ was "sounded firme in the beginning of words, and more liquid in the middle, and ends."[3] Little more is said regarding /r/ until 1740, when one Mather Flint, writing in a primer for French learners of English, said: "...dans plusieurs mots, l’r devant une consonne est fort adouci, presque muet & rend un peu longue la voyale qui le precede." ("...in many words r before a consonant is greatly softened, almost mute, and slightly lengthens the preceding vowel.")[3]

By the 1790s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation was becoming common in London and was quickly increasing in use. The 18th century English actor and linguist John Walker uses the spelling ar to indicate the long vowel of aunt in his 1775 rhyming dictionary.[4] In his influential Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), Walker reported, with a strong tone of disapproval, that "...the r in lard, bard, [...] is pronounced so much in the throat as to be little more than the middle or Italian a, lengthened into baa, baad...."[3] Americans returning to England after the end of the American Revolutionary War reported surprise at the significant changes in fashionable pronunciation.[5] By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety.

The adoption of postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation as the British prestige standard in the late 18th and early 19th centuries influenced American port cities with close connections to Britain, causing upper-class pronunciation in the 19th century to become non-rhotic in many eastern and southern port cities such as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Alexandria, Charleston, and Savannah.[6] Like regional dialects in England, the accents of other areas in America remained rhotic in a display of linguistic "lag" that preserved the original pronunciation of /r/.[6] Non-rhotic pronunciation continued to influence American prestige speech until the 1860s, when the American Civil War shifted America's centers of wealth and political power to areas with fewer cultural connections to the British elite.[7] By 1870, New York City had become America's national center of commerce and entrepreneurship, and its political and economic leaders were increasingly self-made men with little connection to the old colonial elites and British non-rhotic pronunciation.[7] This largely removed the prestige associated with non-rhotic pronunciation in America, such that when the advent of radio and television in the early 20th century established a national standard of American pronunciation, it became a rhotic variety that fully preserves historical /r/.[7]

Modern pronunciation[edit]

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 nowadays many speakers of 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.[8][9]

For non-rhotic speakers, what was historically a vowel plus /r/ is now usually realized as a long vowel. This is called compensatory lengthening, lengthening that occurs after the elision of a sound. So in Received Pronunciation (RP) and many other non-rhotic accents card, fern, born are pronounced [kɑːd], [fɜːn], [bɔːn] or similar (actual pronunciations vary from accent to accent). This length may be retained in phrases, so while car pronounced in isolation is [kʰɑː], car owner is [ˈkʰɑːɹəʊnə]. But a final schwa usually remains short, so water in isolation is [wɔːtʰə]. 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 [pʰʊə], 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 [tʰaɪə] and sour is [saʊə].[10] For some speakers, some long vowels alternate with a diphthong ending in schwa, so wear may be [wɛə] but wearing [wɛːɹɪŋ].

Even General American speakers commonly drop the /r/ in non-final unstressed syllables when another syllable in the same word also contains /r/; this may be referred to as R-dissimilation. Examples include the dropping of the first /r/ in the words surprise, governor and caterpillar. In more careful speech, however, the /r/ sounds are all retained.[11]


Final post-vocalic /r/ in farmer in English rural dialects of the 1950s[12]
GREEN[ə] (non-rhotic)
YELLOW[əʴ] (alveolar)
ORANGE[əʵ] (retroflex)
PINK[əʵː] (retroflex & long)
BLUE[əʶ] (uvular)
VIOLET[ɔʶ] (back & rounded)

Rhotic accents include Scottish English, Irish or Hiberno-English, most varieties of North American English, Barbadian English, Indian English,[13] and Pakistani English.[14]

Non-rhotic accents include most English English, Welsh English, New Zealand English, Australian English, and South African English.

Semi-rhotic accents have also been studied, such as Jamaican English, in which r is pronounced (as in even non-rhotic accents) before vowels, but also in stressed monosyllables or stressed syllables at the ends of words (e.g. in "car" or "dare"); however, it is not pronounced at the end of unstressed syllables (e.g. in "water") or before consonants (e.g. "market").[15]

Variably rhotic accents, in which speakers often sporadically waver between rhoticity and non-rhoticity without any particular rules of context, are also widely documented. Variably rhotic accents comprise much of Caribbean English, for example, as spoken in Tobago, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Bahamas.[16] They also include current-day New York City English,[17] New York Latino English, and some Boston English.

Non-rhotic accents in the Americas include the rest of Caribbean and Belize.


Though most English varieties in England are non-rhotic, rhotic accents are found in the West Country (south and west of a line from near Shrewsbury to around Portsmouth), the Corby area, some 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.[18]

The red areas are those where Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006:48) found some non-rhotic pronunciation among some whites in major cities in the United States. AAVE-influenced non-rhotic pronunciations may be found among working-class and middle-class African-Americans throughout the country.

United States[edit]

American English is predominantly rhotic today, but at the end of the nineteenth century non-rhotic accents were common throughout much of the Eastern U.S. and through much of the South along the Gulf Coast. This trend reversed during the mid 20th century, in large part due to the influence of television, as well as the increasing political influence of states to the west (the upper Midwest, then California and Texas). Non-rhotic pronunciations have increasingly been seen as foreign with rhotic accents increasingly seen as American.[19]

Today, non-rhoticity in the Southern dialects is found primarily among older speakers, and only in some areas such as central and southern Alabama, Savannah, Georgia, and Norfolk, Virginia,[20] as well as in the Yat accent of New Orleans. The local dialects of eastern New England, especially Boston, Massachusetts, extending into the states of Maine and New Hampshire, are largely non-rhotic, as well as the traditional Rhode Island dialect; however, this feature has recently been receding. The Greater New York City dialect is traditionally non-rhotic, though William Labov more precisely classifies its current form as variably rhotic,[21] with many of its sub-varieties now fully rhotic, such as in northeastern New Jersey.

African American Vernacular English is largely non-rhotic, and in some non-rhotic Southern 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].[22] 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.[23] This pronunciation also occurs in AAVE.[24]

Typically, even non-rhotic modern American English varieties do pronounce the /r/ in /ɜr/ (as in "bird," "work," or "perky"), realizing it, as in most of the U.S., as [ɝ] or [ɚ] About this sound listen.


Canadian English 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, which may be non-rhotic or variably rhotic.[25]

New Zealand[edit]

Although New Zealand English is predominantly non-rhotic, Southland and parts of Otago in the far south of New Zealand's South Island are rhotic due to an apparent Scottish influence. Some Māori speakers are semi-rhotic although this is not clearly identified to any particular region or attributed to any defined language shift. The Māori accent has variation to the European-origin New Zealand accent


The English spoken in Asia is predominantly rhotic. Many varieties of Indian English are rhotic owing to the underlying phonotactics of the native Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages[13] whilst some tend to be non-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). However, many older (and younger) speakers among South and East Asians speak non-rhotic.

Other Asian regions with non-rhotic English are Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. A typical Malaysian English would be almost totally non-rhotic due to the nonexistence of rhotic endings in both languages of influence, whereas a more educated Malaysian's English may be non-rhotic due to Standard Malaysian English being based on RP (Received Pronunciation).

A typical teenager's Southeast Asian English would be rhotic, mainly because of prominent influence by American English. Spoken English in Myanmar is non-rhotic, but there are a number of English speakers with a rhotic or partially rhotic pronunciation. Sri Lankan English may be rhotic.

Mergers characteristic of non-rhotic accents[edit]

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 John C. Wells, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets commA and lettER. It is found in all or nearly all non-rhotic accents,[26] and is even present in some accents that are in other respects rhotic, such as those of some speakers in Jamaica and the Bahamas.[26]

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.[26]
Pawn–porn merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets THOUGHT and NORTH. It is found in most of the same accents as the father–farther merger described above, but is absent from the Bahamas and Guyana.[26]
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.[27]
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.[26]
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.[26]
It can be seen in the term "Fo Sho", an imitation of "for sure".
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,[28] New York City speakers[29] 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,[31] some southern U.S. accents,[32] and African American Vernacular English.[33]
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.[34][35]
Bud–bird merger
A merger of /ɜː(r)/ and /ʌ/ occurring for some speakers of Jamaican English making bud and bird homophones as /bʌd/.[36] 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 / coil–curl merger
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets CHOICE and NURSE preconsonantally (so that "stir" and "boy" never rhymed). It was present in older New York and New Orleans regional accents, but became stigmatized and is sharply recessive in those born since the Second World War.[37] 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,[38] Shi'a–sheer, and Maia–mire,[39] while skua may be identical with the second syllable of obscure.[40]

Effect on spelling[edit]

Spellings based on non-rhotic pronunciation of dialectal or foreign words can result in mispronunciations if read by rhotic speakers. Examples include:

  • "Er", to indicate a filled pause, as a British spelling of what US-Americans would render "uh".
  • The Korean family name 박 (Bak/Pak) usually written "Park" in English.
  • The game Parcheesi.
  • British English slang words:
  • 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 काग़ज़ / کاغذ "kāg͟haẕ" (= "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".


  1. ^ Paul Skandera, Peter Burleigh, A Manual of English Phonetics and Phonology, Gunter Narr Verlag, 2011, p. 60.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Lass (1999), p. 114.
  3. ^ a b c Lass (1999), p. 115.
  4. ^ Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006): 47.
  5. ^ Fisher (2001), p. 73.
  6. ^ a b Fisher (2001), p. 76.
  7. ^ a b c Fisher (2001), p. 77.
  8. ^ Wells, Accents of English, 1:224-225.
  9. ^ Gimson, Alfred Charles (2014), Cruttenden, Alan, ed., Gimson's Pronunciation of English (8th ed.), Routledge, pp. 119–120, ISBN 9781444183092 
  10. ^ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
  11. ^ Wells, Accents of English, p. 490.
  12. ^ Wakelyn, Martin: "Rural dialects in England", in: Trudgill, Peter (1984): Language in the British Isles, p.77
  13. ^ a b Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English 3: Beyond the British Isles. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 629. ISBN 0-521-28541-0. 
  14. ^ [1][dead link]
  15. ^ Wells, Accents of English, pp. 76, 221
  16. ^ Schneider, Edgar (2008). Varieties of English: The Americas and the Caribbean. Walter de Gruyter. p. 396. 
  17. ^ "Why the classic Noo Yawk accent is fading away". New York Post. 2010-06-02. Retrieved 2013-04-13. 
  18. ^ Trudgill, Peter (1984). Language in the British Isles. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521284097. 
  19. ^ Milla, Robert McColl (2012). English Historical Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh University Press. p. 25-26. ISBN 978-0748641819. 
  20. ^ Labov, Ash, and Boberg, 2006: pp. 47–48.
  21. ^ Trudgill, Peter (2010). Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. 
  22. ^ Gick, Bryan. 1999. A gesture-based account of intrusive consonants in English. Phonology 16: 1, pp. 29–54. (pdf). Accessed November 12, 2010.
  23. ^ Harris 2006: pp. 2–5.
  24. ^ Pollock et al., 1998.
  25. ^ Trudgill, Peter (2000). "Sociohistorical linguistics and dialect survival: a note on another Nova Scotian enclave". In Magnus Leung, ed. Language Structure and Variation. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International. p. 197. 
  26. ^ a b c d e f Wells (1982)
  27. ^ Wells, p. 287
  28. ^ Wells, p. 524
  29. ^ Wells (1982), p. 503
  30. ^ Dialectal variant of "horse"
  31. ^ Wells (1982), p. 504
  32. ^ Wells (1982), p. 544
  33. ^ Wells (1982), p. 577
  34. ^ Wells, p. 520
  35. ^ Dillard, Joey Lee (1980). Perspectives on American English. The Hague; New York: Walter de Gruyter. p. 53. ISBN 90-279-3367-7. 
  36. ^ Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521229197. , pp. 136–37, 203–6, 234, 245–47, 339–40, 400, 419, 443, 576
  37. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 508-509
  38. ^ Wells (1982), p. 225
  39. ^ Upton, Clive; Eben Upton (2004). Oxford rhyming dictionary. Oxford University Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-19-280115-5. 
  40. ^ Upton, Clive; Eben Upton (2004). Oxford rhyming dictionary. Oxford University Press. p. 60. ISBN 0-19-280115-5. 
Works cited
  • Fisher, John Hurt (2001). "British and American, Continuity and Divergence". In Algeo, John. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume VI: English in North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 59–85. 
  • Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  • Lass, Roger (1999). "Phonology and Morphology". In Lass, Roger. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 56–186. ISBN 0-521-26476-6. 
  • Trudgill, Peter (1984). Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.