Let’s start with two questions. Please speak the questions below aloud to try to hear rhoticity at work. Ready?
Why does a hungry American woman want “bread and butter” while a hungry British woman wants “bread and buttah.” Why does an American love her “father,” while a Brit loves her “fathah.” The answer is – rhoticity.
English rhoticity refers to the pronunciation of Rs. The presence or absence of rhoticity is one of the most prominent distinctions by which varieties of English can be classified.
The difference is as follows:
Americans and Canadians clearly pronounce the R at the end of a syllable or a word – barking, sorting, morning; and mother, father, weather. The R is also clearly expressed before a consonant, as in card, shark, burn, turn.
By contrast, a British English speaker omits those Rs altogether. The Rs become silent.
Please note that English rhoticity does not differ in initial Rs, so whether you are a Brit or a Yank, you will speak the R in “Ruby’s red roses” the same way. But the treatment of the other Rs – at the middle and the end of a word – is one of the clearest ways we hear differences in varieties of English.
So who speaks what kind of English?
According to the Pronunciation Studio, “The vast majority of native English speakers worldwide pronounce every written < r >, including most speakers in America, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, India and Pakistan. These are known as ‘rhotic’ speakers. English accents that follow the silent < r > rule are known as ‘non-rhotic’, and these include most accents in England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Not all accents in England, however, are non-rhotic, in the West Country a large number of speakers pronounce their ‘r’s, and this is true of pockets in the North too, though the rhoticity seems to be gradually disappearing in these areas.”
Rhoticity has changed across time and continents, and If you guessed that American English with its rhotic R must be the newer or more modern way of speaking English, you would be mistaken. In fact, the dialects of Scotland, Ireland, and most of the United States and Canada have retained this hard or historical R and are thus termed the rhotic varieties of English. American English is (with exceptions) in this category.
Rhoticity… to speak or not to speak mid and final Rs… that is the question!
If you want to speak standard British English, aka “received pronunciation” or “the Queen’s English,” you need to omit mid and final position Rs (except in the case of linking Rs), and you will need to practice with a British English teacher who specializes in pronunciation training. But if your goal is standard American English or international English, and since rhotic English is most common worldwide, it is often best to stick with American English rhotic Rs. That will also require some practice.
Brenda de Jong Pauley, MA, September 2020
Would you like to meet a native-speaker teacher for a free consultation about accent reduction, pronunciation training and the R sound? We offer these appointment online and in person, with American and British English teachers. Call us at +31 20 823 0569. Or use the contact form below. We look forward to speaking with you!
Go to our Pronunciation Training Course page now.
More resources for further learning:
Video: The English Center, “Secrets of English Pronunciation: Rhoticity”
Are you interested in the history of the rhotic R? Video: Ben Crystal
Videos: Do you want to sound more American? Go to Rachel’s English. 300+ spoken English videos.
Do you want to have a non-rhotic R? Check out The Pronunciation Studio. “The Silent R”to