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Rhotic Accent

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Rhotic Accent

Rhotic accents. What are they and where are they used? Today, we'll explore what the rhotic accent is and take a look at some examples. We will focus on the American and British rhotic accents, paying attention to the different ways words are pronounced.

The word 'rhotic' is a backformation that comes from the word 'rhotacism', which stems from the Greek letter 'rho.'

Rhotic accent – meaning

A rhotic accent is an accent that always pronounces the rhotic /r/ consonant sound whenever it appears in words. The opposite of rhotic is non-rhotic. This means the /r/ sound is not pronounced if it comes after a vowel and is followed by a consonant, or if it is at the end of a word. For example, take the word mother. A non-rhotic accent would drop the /r/ in mother, as it comes at the end of a word. On the other hand, a rhotic accent would pronounce the /r/.

Rhotic Accent Image of letter R StudySmarter

A rhotic accent always pronounces /r/. (Wikimedia commons)

Rhotic pronunciation

In phonetics, a rhotic /r/ is referred to as a voiced alveolar approximant. This means it is pronounced by curling your tongue up near the roof of your mouth and vocalising out through the mouth. The tip of your tongue should be just behind your alveolar ridge (the bony part behind your front teeth), but should not be touching it. Your mouth should be narrowly opened and your lips should not be touching.

Do you want an easy way to imagine the /r/ sound in a rhotic accent? Think about a pirate. What is a well-known sound that is often associated with pirates?

Arrr!

This is the /r/ sound!

Rhotic Accent Image of a pirate StudySmarter

The /r/ sound can be compared to a pirate's 'arrr.' (Pixabay)

Some people have difficulty pronouncing the /r/ sound. This is a speech impediment referred to as rhotacism.

Rhotic American accent

Perhaps one of the most well-known rhotic accents is the standard American accent. The majority of American accents are rhotic, meaning the /r/ sound is always pronounced, no matter where it is in a word. For example, take the following words:

hard = /hɑrd/

far = /fɑr/

worst = /wɜrst/

near = /nɪr/

With a rhotic American accent, the /r/ is always pronounced.

Rhotic British accent

The use of the rhotic accent is not as common in British English, as many British accents tend to be non-rhotic (including standard British English). This means the /r/ sound is not always pronounced. For example, in words such as 'car', 'water' and 'first', the /r/ sound would usually not be pronounced. However, this is not always the case! Some British accents are rhotic, including:

  • Most West Country English accents.

  • Corby accent (a town in North Northamptonshire).

  • Some areas of Lancashire.

  • Some parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

  • Most Scottish accents (although there are some exceptions in areas of Edinburgh and Glasgow).

DID YOU KNOW?

Both Old English (the earliest form of the English language!) and Middle English (spoken from around 1150 - 1450) were rhotic.

Although Standard British English is now non-rhotic, it did not become fully non-rhotic until the early 19th century.

Rhotic accent – examples

  • Most West Country English accents.

  • Corby accent (a town in North Northamptonshire).

  • Some areas of Lancashire.

  • Some parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

  • Most Scottish accents (although there are some exceptions in areas of Edinburgh and Glasgow).

DID YOU KNOW?

Both Old English (the earliest form of the English language!) and Middle English (spoken from around 1150 - 1450) were rhotic.

Although Standard British English is now non-rhotic, it did not become fully non-rhotic until the early 19th century.

Rhotic accent – examples

Below are some examples of words and their pronunciations if spoken with a standard American English accent (rhotic) vs with a standard British English accent (non-rhotic). By comparing the two, you will be able to understand the differences between a rhotic and non-rhotic accent.

Word
Rhotic accent phonetic pronunciation (American English)
Non-rhotic phonetic pronunciation (British English)
Start
/stɑrt/
/stɑːt/
Burn
/bɜrn/
/bɜːn/
Water
/wɔːtər/
/wɔːtə/
First
/fɜrst/
/fɜːst/
Car
/kɑr/
/kɑː/
After
/æftər/
/ɑːftə/
Farmer
/ˈfɑːrmər/
/ˈfɑːmə/

Notice how the /r/ sound is present in all of the rhotic pronunciations, but it has been dropped in all of the non-rhotic pronunciations.

Rhotic Accent - Key takeaways

  • A rhotic accent is an accent that always pronounces the rhotic /r/ consonant sound whenever it appears in words.
  • The opposite of rhotic is non-rhotic (not pronouncing /r/ if it comes after a vowel and is followed by a consonant, or if it is at the end of a word).
  • Most American English accents are rhotic.
  • Most British English accents are non-rhotic, but there are exceptions.
  • Both Old and Middle English were rhotic. Standard British English did not become fully non-rhotic until the early 19th century.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rhotic Accent

Rhotic refers to an accent in which an /r/ is pronounced if it comes after a vowel, and is not followed by another vowel.

Some British sounds are rhotic such as the West Country accents or most Scottish accents. Most American English accents today are rhotic, including standard American English. The same goes for almost all Canadian English accents and most Irish accents.

The English accents that are predominantly rhotic are:

Most American English accents

Almost all Canadian English accents

Most Scottish accents

Most Irish accents

Rhotic is pronounced roah-tick (rəʊtɪk)

Yes, general American English is rhotic.

Final Rhotic Accent Quiz

Question

The word 'rhotic' comes from the word...

Show answer

Answer

rhotacism

Show question

Question

The word 'rhotacism' stems from which Greek letter?

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Answer

rho

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Question

Standard British English is...

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Answer

non-rhotic

Show question

Question

Standard American English is...

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Answer

rhotic

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Question

What is the opposite of rhotic?

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Answer

non-rhotic

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Question

True or false?


The Standard British English accent is rhotic.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


All American English accents are rhotic.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Some people are unable to pronounce their r's correctly. This is a speech impediment referred to as what?


Show answer

Answer

Rhotacism

Show question

Question

What is rhotacism?

Show answer

Answer

A speech impediment 

Show question

Question

Which of the following accents is rhotic?

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Answer

Standard British English

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the rhotic pronunciation of start?

Show answer

Answer

/stɑrt/

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Question

Which of the following is the rhotic pronunciation of water?

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Answer

/wɔːtər/

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the rhotic pronunciation of burn?

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Answer

/bɜrn/

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the rhotic pronunciation of first?

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Answer

/fɜrst/

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Question

Which of the following is the rhotic pronunciation of far?

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Answer

/fɑr/

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Question

What does 'rhotic accent' mean?

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Answer

A rhotic accent is an accent that always pronounces the rhotic /r/ consonant sound whenever it appears in words.

Show question

Question

What is a rhotic /r/ in phonetics?

Show answer

Answer

A voiced alveolar approximant.

Show question

Question

What does the term 'voiced alveolar approximant' mean?

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Answer

A sound that is pronounced by curling your tongue up near the roof of your mouth and vocalising out through the mouth.  

Show question

Question

What is the alveolar ridge?

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Answer

The bony part of your palate, just behind your top, front teeth.

Show question

Question

Give three examples of rhotic British English accents.

Show answer

Answer

Any from this list:


  • Most West Country English accents.

  • Corby accent 

  • Some areas of Lancashire.

  • Some parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

  • Most Scottish accents

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