Pronunciation of English /r/

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Pronunciation of the phoneme /r/ in the English language has many variations in different dialects.


Depending on dialect, /r/ has at least the following allophones in varieties of English around the world:

In most dialects /r/ is labialized [ɹ̠ʷ] in many positions, as in reed [ɹʷiːd] and tree [tɹ̥ʷiː]; in the latter case, the /t/ may be slightly labialized as well.[1] In General American, it is labialized at the beginning of a word but not at the end[citation needed].

There are two primary articulations of the approximant /r/: apical (with the tip of the tongue approaching the alveolar ridge or even curled back slightly) and domal (with a centralized bunching of the tongue known as "molar r" or sometimes "bunched r" or "braced r"). Peter Ladefoged wrote: "Many BBC English speakers have the tip of the tongue raised towards the roof of the mouth in the general location of the alveolar ridge, but many American English speakers simply bunch the body of the tongue up so that it is hard to say where the articulation is".[2] The distinction is transcribed ⟨ɹ̺⟩ vs ⟨ɹ̈⟩ in the extensions to the IPA but has little or no acoustic or auditory consequence, and may vary idiosyncratically between individuals.[3]

In non-rhotic accents, such as Received Pronunciation and Australian English, /r/ is subject to the phonotactic constraint that it can only appear before a vowel. In some rhotic accents, such as General American, /r/ when not followed by a vowel is realized as an r-coloring of the preceding vowel or its coda: nurse [nɝs], butter [ˈbʌtɚ].


R-labialization, not to be confused with the rounding of initial /r/ described above, is a process occurring in certain dialects of English, particularly some varieties of Cockney, in which the /r/ phoneme is realized as a labiodental approximant [ʋ] in contrast to an alveolar approximant [ɹ]. To English speakers who are not used to [ʋ], this sounds nearly indistinguishable from /w/.

Use of labiodental /r/ is commonly stigmatized by prescriptivists. Regardless, the consonant [ʋ] is used in a variety of other languages and is increasing in many accents of British English.[4] Most speakers doing so are from the southeastern part of the country, particularly in London. It is also occasionally heard in some speakers of Boston accent though more often in an exaggerated parody of these dialects.

It has also been reported to be an extremely rare realization of /r/ in New Zealand English.[5]

The /r/ realization may not always be labiodental: bilabial and velarized labiodental realizations have been reported.

R-labialization leads to pronunciations such as the following:

  • red - [ʋɛd]
  • ring - [ʋɪŋ]
  • rabbit - [ˈʋæbɪt]
  • merry Christmas - [mɛʋi ˈkʋɪsmɪs]

However, replacement of /r/ by some kind of labial approximant may also occur as symptom of a speech defect, called rhotacism or, more precisely, derhotacization.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (2001). Vowels and Consonants (4th ed.). Blackwell. p. 103. 
  2. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (2001). A Course in Phonetics. Harcourt College Publishers. p. 55. 
  3. ^ Laver, John (1994). Principles of Phonetics. Cambridge. p. 300. 
  4. ^ Foulkes, Paul, and Gerard J. Docherty. (eds.) (1999). Urban Voices. Arnold
  5. ^ Bauer, Laurie; Warren, Paul; Bardsley, Dianne; Kennedy, Marianna; Major, George (2007), "New Zealand English", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 37 (1): 100, doi:10.1017/S0025100306002830