Rhotic and non-rhotic accents

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English pronunciation is divided into two main accent groups, the rhotic and the non-rhotic, depending on when the letter r (equivalent to Greek rho) is pronounced. Rhotic speakers pronounce written [r] in all positions (except in certain French borrowings where it is never pronounced, like dossier), while non-rhotic speakers pronounce it only if it is followed by a vowel. In linguistic terms, non-rhotic accents are said to exclude [r] in the syllable coda. This is commonly referred to as postvocalic R, although that term can be misleading because not all R's that occur after vowels are excluded in non-rhotic English.

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Development of non-rhotic accents

Non-rhotic dialects of English began to emerge in about the year 1600. The loss of the sound [r] is known as derhotacization or informally as r-dropping. Evidence of the earliest date of the sound change is shown in the English word juggernaut, which is first attested in the 1630s. This represents the Hindi word jagannāth, meaning "lord of the universe"; the English spelling shows that the digraph er was chosen to represent a Hindi sound that is close to the English schwa.

A non-rhotic speaker pronounces the [r] in red, torrid, watery (in each case the [r] is followed by a vowel) but not the written [r] of hard, nor that of car or water except when the word is followed by a vowel. In most non-rhotic accents, if a word ending in written [r] is followed closely by another word beginning with a vowel the [r] is, however, sounded—as in water ice. This phenomenon is referred to as "linking [r]". Many non-rhotic speakers also insert epenthetic [r]s between vowels (droring 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 [r] at word boundaries, especially where one or both vowels is schwa; e.g. 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 [r] is now usually realized as a long vowel. So car, hard, fur, born are phonetically , , , . This length is retained in phrases, so car owner is . But a final schwa remains short, so water is . For some speakers some long vowels alternate with a diphthong ending in schwa, so wear is but wearing is . Some pairs of words with distinct pronunciations in rhotic accents are homophones in many non-rhotic accents: e.g. father and farther; draws and drawers; formally and formerly; batted and battered; area and airier; caught and court. Syllabication interacts with rhoticism: sheer and Shia respectively have one and two syllables; in some non-rhotic speech, this may be insufficient for distinguishing them.

Missing image
Rdropping.JPG
The areas enclosed by red lines 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. Data from the Telsur Project (http://babel.ling.upenn.edu/phonoatlas/) of William Labov and others.

Distribution of rhotic and non-rhotic accents

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 Northumbria, the West Country, and parts of Lancashire. Other areas with rhotic accents include India (particularly in southern India and Maharashtra where the "r's" are rolled), 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, most of the Caribbean, most of England (especially Received Pronunciation speakers) and Wales, most of New Zealand and South Africa. In Canada, non-rhotic accents are found in the Maritimes. In the United States, large parts of The South are non-rhotic, although pockets of rhotic speakers do exist, especially in northwest Alabama, Middle Tennessee and peninsular Florida. The accent of the western southern states, Texas and Oklahoma is rhotic, with sharply pronounced rs in all positions. In general the non-rhotic accent is more common in eastern coastal Southern areas, while the Appalachian accent is rhotic. 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 lower-class speakers, and is being replaced by the rhotic accent.

There are a few accents of Southern American English where intervocalic is deleted before an unstressed syllable. In such accents, pronunciations like for Carolina are heard)

In some dialects of American English, people will add an /r/ to certain words through hypercorrection, the most common examples being , and for wash, water and idea. This hypercorrection also occurs in the Canadian pronunciation of for khaki, although this is fading over time and many young Canadians now use the American pronunciation of .

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