Accents of English can be either rhotic or non-rhotic. A rhotic accent generally has /r/ more or less whenever it appears in the spelling. A non-rhotic accent, however, does not have the /r/ in final or pre-consonantal positions (this is sometimes known as the post-vocalic /r/, although others use the more accurate, but perhaps more cumbersome term, the non-prevocalic /r/). What this means is that speakers of non-rhotic accents have this rule: if the <r> in the spelling does not occur before a vowel sound, don’t pronounce it. (NOTE: vowel sound, not vowel letter.)


Here are examples of words and phrases where the <r> won’t be pronounced by non-rhotic speakers:

  • department
  • party pooper
  • utter nonsense and balderdash
  • Mr Carter, you are so argumentative, aren’t you


The phenomenon of non-rhoticity can be found in some other languages as well, such as Malay. Malay in Malaysia (Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Malaysia) is non-rhotic whilst Malay in Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia) is distinctively rhotic.



Malaysian pronunciation

Indonesian pronunciation

arnab (rabbit)



putarkan (to turn)



satu meter panjang (one metre long)

satu mitə pandʒaŋ

satu metər pandʒaŋ


Indeed most southern Chinese languages like Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese do not make use of /r/ at all, whereas northern Chinese languages like Mandarin make use of it extensively, so that some Singaporean versions of Mandarin are also non-rhotic, with the non-prevocalic <r> not pronounced (eg er ‘two’ pronounced [ə] or [ɜ]) and <r> in other positions pronounced [l] (eg ren ‘person’ pronounced [lən]).


Turning back to English, we can say that all English accents were rhotic up until the early MnE period and non-rhoticity was a relatively late development. (Remember, spelling reflects pronunciation in the early MnE period.) What is particularly interesting about the non-prevocalic /r/ is that before it was lost, it affected the vowel preceding it. It did three kinds of things: (1) lengthened the preceding vowel sound; (2) changed the quality of the vowel sound; (3) caused diphthongisation.


1. Lengthening

Words like arm, bark and card originally had a short [a] sound (­cf. am, back, cad)

, and words like cord, horse and storm had a short [ɔ] sound (cf. cod, hot, stock)

. These sounds lengthened in the 17th century to [] and [ɔː] respectively, and with the loss of /r/, the former developed into /ɑː/, a new phoneme.


2. Quality change

Up until about 1600, the vowel sounds in fern, fir and fur were the same as those in pet, pit and put respectively (and of course, the /r/ was pronounced). Using the phonetic alphabet, their pronunciations would have been [fɛrn], [fɪr] and [fʊr]. All three vowels began to be ‘coloured’ by /r/, and the vowel quality began to coalesce into [ə], so that in 1700, the pronunciations would have been [fərn], [fər] and [fər] (the phonetic distinction between fir and fur were now lost). By 1900, the [r] was lost and the vowel sound lengthened (as in section 1 above), so the words were pronounced [fəːn], [ː] and [ː]. This paved the way to an independent phoneme [ː] which eventually developed into today’s [ɜː].


However, not all cases of [ɛr] developed into [ɜː]. Most ME [ɛr] became [ɜː] as in certain, err, herb and servant.  There were other cases of [ɛr] developing into [ɑː] instead though such as clerk, farm, harvest, marvel, sergeant and star. The 15th-century spellings of these words were: clerk(e) or clark(e), ferme or farme, hervist or harveste, merveil or marveille (among others), sargeande or sergend (among others) and stere or stare. It’s clear that 15th-century spelling was more responsive to variation in pronunciation, and the traditional [ɛr] pronunciation has been disguised somewhat with the newer <ar> spellings, although the <er> spelling has been retained for clerk and sergeant.


/r/ was not the only sound affecting the quality of vowels. For example, some instances of [ɒr] (see section 1 above) also developed into [ɜː] rather than [ɔː], as in worm, world and worth; and some instances of [ar] (see section 1 above) developed into [ɔː] rather than [ɑː], as in ward and warn. Clearly, the initial [w] also affected the quality of the vowel but we won’t discuss this further here except to invite you to compare the pronunciations of the following words (won and don, wad and dad).


3. Diphthongisation

Points 1 and 2 above relate to what happened when / r / came after short vowel sounds. If / r / came after long vowel sounds or diphthongs, a [ə] glide is introduced, so fire developed from before the GVS [fiːr] to [faɪr] after the GVS, further on to [faɪər] and finally to [faɪə] with the loss of / r /. In some other examples the [ə] glide at the end is lost.


The / r / also arrested the GVS raising, or even lowered the vowel sound, in some cases. Compare vowel sounds in four and fount, pear and peat, lore and note. Here are more examples.




glide introduction

/r/ loss

today’s pronunciation










pɛə, ː










pʊə, ː








Again, it is pertinent to ask why the changes took place. We could think of it as a process of the simplification of consonant clusters which has been taking place for a long time. This is the argument of economy; decreased effort without decreased intelligibility must be a good thing. Words like knight would have had the initial <k> and the internal <gh> pronounced in the early MnE period [knICt], and today the initial [kn] is simplified to [n], and the final [Ct] to [t]. We can think about the loss of /w/ in words like two, answer and sword as well in the same light. And there were OE clusters like [hl] (as in hleapan, ‘to leap’) which have been simplified to [l].


You could also probably think of an argument based on redundancy. If the vowel sounds have changed (in length, in quality, in being diphthongised), the actual [r] is no longer required to make a distinction between car and cat; girl and gill; hear and heat any more; the distinction is already heard in the vowel sounds.


Further task

Consult a dictionary with etymological information on two colloquial American terms cuss and ass (as in ‘buttocks’ or ‘bottom’). Did pronunciation changes lead to refashioning of the words and how?


A. What is phonology?

B. Splits and mergers

C. The Great Vowel Shift

E. The Intervocalic Ts


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