In non-rhotic varieties, speakers no longer pronounce /r/ in postvocalic environments – that is, when it is immediately after a vowel and not followed by another vowel. For example, a rhotic English speaker pronounces the words hard and butter as /ˈhɑːrd/ and /ˈbʌtər/, whereas a non-rhotic speaker "drops" or "deletes" the /r/ sound, pronouncing them as /ˈhɑːd/ and /ˈbʌtə/. A non-rhotic speaker usually still pronounces the /r/ in the continuously spoken phrase butter and jam (the linking R), since in this case the /r/ is followed by a vowel.
Loss of postvocalic /r/ began sporadically in informal speech in the 15th century, and by the 17th century postvocalic /r/ was weakened but still universally present. In the mid-18th century it was still pronounced in most environments, but may occasionally have been deleted entirely, especially after low vowels. By the 1790s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation had become common in London and surrounding areas, and was being increasingly used even in more formal and educated speech. By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety, though some variation persisted as late as the 1870s.
Red areas are where English dialects of the late 20th century were rhotic. Based on P. Trudgill, The Dialects of England.
The earliest traces of a loss of /r/ in English appear in the early 15th century and occur before coronal consonants, especially /s/, giving modern "ass (buttocks)" (Old Englishears, Middle Englishers or ars), and "bass (fish)" (OE bærs, ME bars). A second phase of /r/-loss began during the 15th century, and was characterized by sporadic and lexically variable deletion, such as monyng "morning" and cadenall "cardinal". These /r/-less spellings appear throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, but are uncommon and are restricted to private documents, especially ones written by women. No English authorities describe loss of /r/ in the standard language prior to the mid-18th century, and many do not fully accept it until the 1790s.
During the mid-17th century, a number of sources describe /r/ as being weakened but still present. The English playwright Ben Jonson's English Grammar, published posthumously in 1640, records that /r/ was "sounded firme in the beginning of words, and more liquid in the middle, and ends." Little more is said regarding /r/ until 1740, when one Mather Flint, writing in a primer for French learners of English, said: "...dans plusieurs mots, l’r devant une consonne est fort adouci, presque muet & rend un peu longue la voyale qui le precede." ("...in many words r before a consonant is greatly softened, almost mute, and slightly lengthens the preceding vowel.")
By the 1770s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation was becoming common around London even in more formal, educated speech. The English actor and linguist John Walker uses the spelling ar to indicate the long vowel of aunt in his 1775 rhyming dictionary. In his influential Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), Walker reported, with a strong tone of disapproval, that "...the r in lard, bard, [...] is pronounced so much in the throat as to be little more than the middle or Italian a, lengthened into baa, baad...." Americans returning to England after the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 reported surprise at the significant changes in fashionable pronunciation. By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety, though it continued to be variable as late as the 1870s.
The adoption of postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation as the British prestige standard in the late 18th and early 19th centuries influenced American port cities with close connections to Britain, causing upper-class pronunciation to become non-rhotic in many eastern and southern port cities such as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Alexandria, Charleston, and Savannah. Like regional dialects in England, the accents of other areas in America remained rhotic in a display of linguistic "lag" that preserved the original pronunciation of /r/. Non-rhotic pronunciation continued to influence American prestige speech until the 1860s, when the American Civil War shifted America's centers of wealth and political power to areas with fewer cultural connections to the British elite.
By 1870, New York City had become America's national center of commerce and entrepreneurship, and its political and economic leaders were increasingly self-made men with little connection to the old colonial elites and British non-rhotic pronunciation. This largely removed the prestige associated with non-rhotic pronunciation in America, such that when the advent of radio and television in the early 20th century established a national standard of American pronunciation, it became a rhotic variety that fully preserves historical /r/.
In most non-rhotic accents, if a word ending in written "r" is followed closely by a word beginning with a vowel, the /r/ is pronounced—as in water ice. This phenomenon is referred to as "linking R". Many non-rhotic speakers also insert an epenthetic/r/ between vowels when the first vowel is one that can occur before syllable-final r (drawring for drawing). This so-called "intrusive R" has been stigmatized, but nowadays many speakers of Received Pronunciation frequently "intrude" an epenthetic/r/ at word boundaries, especially where one or both vowels is schwa; for example the idea of it becomes the idea-r-of it, Australia and New Zealand becomes Australia-r-and New Zealand, the formerly well-known India-r-Office and "Laura Norder" (Law and Order). The typical alternative used by RP speakers is to insert a glottal stop where an intrusive R would otherwise be placed.
For non-rhotic speakers, what was historically a vowel plus /r/ is now usually realized as a long vowel. This is called compensatory lengthening, lengthening that occurs after the elision of a sound. So in Received Pronunciation (RP) and many other non-rhotic accents card, fern, born are pronounced [kʰɑːd], [fɜːn], [bɔːn] or similar (actual pronunciations vary from accent to accent). This length may be retained in phrases, so while car pronounced in isolation is [kʰɑː], car owner is [ˈkʰɑːɹəʊnə]. But a final schwa usually remains short, so water in isolation is [wɔːtʰə]. In RP and similar accents the vowels /iː/ and /uː/ (or /ʊ/), when followed by r, become diphthongs ending in schwa, so near is [nɪə] and poor is [pʰʊə], though these have other realizations as well, including monophthongal ones; once again, the pronunciations vary from accent to accent. The same happens to diphthongs followed by R, though these may be considered to end in /ər/ in rhotic speech, and it is the /ər/ that reduces to schwa as usual in non-rhotic speech: tire said in isolation is [tʰaɪə] and sour is [saʊə]. For some speakers, some long vowels alternate with a diphthong ending in schwa, so wear may be [wɛə] but wearing[wɛːɹɪŋ].
Even General American speakers commonly drop the /r/ in non-final unstressed syllables when another syllable in the same word also contains /r/; this may be referred to as R-dissimilation. Examples include the dropping of the first /r/ in the words surprise, governor and caterpillar. In more careful speech, however, the /r/ sounds are all retained.
Semi-rhotic accents have also been studied, such as Jamaican English, in which r is pronounced (as in even non-rhotic accents) before vowels, but also in stressed monosyllables or stressed syllables at the ends of words (e.g. in "car" or "dare"); however, it is not pronounced at the end of unstressed syllables (e.g. in "water") or before consonants (e.g. "market").
Though most English varieties in England are non-rhotic, rhotic accents are found in the West Country (south and west of a line from near Shrewsbury to around Portsmouth), the Corby area, some of Lancashire (north and west of the centre of Manchester), some parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, and in the areas that border Scotland. The prestige form, however, exerts a steady pressure towards non-rhoticity. Thus the urban speech of Bristol or Southampton is more accurately described as variably rhotic, the degree of rhoticity being reduced as one moves up the class and formality scales.
The red dots show major U.S. cities where Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006:48) found 50% or higher non-rhotic speech among at least one white resident. African American Vernacular English's non-rhotic speech may be found among working- and middle-class African Americans throughout the country.
American English is predominantly rhotic today, but at the end of the 19th century non-rhotic accents were common throughout much of the Eastern U.S. and through much of the South along the Gulf Coast. This trend reversed during the mid-20th century, in large part due to the influence of more western-influenced television, as well as the increasing political influence of states to the west (the Upper Midwest, and then California and Texas). Non-rhotic pronunciations have increasingly been perceived by Americans as sounding foreign with rhotic accents increasingly seen as sounding American.
African American Vernacular English is largely non-rhotic, and in some non-rhotic Southern and AAVE accents, there is no linking r, that is, /r/ at the end of a word is deleted even when the following word starts with a vowel, so that "Mister Adams" is pronounced [mɪstə(ʔ)ˈædəmz]. In a few such accents, intervocalic /r/ is deleted before an unstressedsyllable even within a word when the following syllable begins with a vowel. In such accents, pronunciations like [kæəˈlaːnə] for Carolina, or [bɛːˈʌp] for "bear up" are heard. This pronunciation also occurs in AAVE.
Typically, even non-rhotic modern American English varieties do pronounce the /r/ in /ɜːr/ (as in "bird," "work," or "perky"), realizing it, as in most of the U.S., as [ɝ] or [ɚ]listen.
Although New Zealand English is predominantly non-rhotic, Southland and parts of Otago in the far south of New Zealand's South Island are rhotic from apparent Scottish influence. Some Māori speakers are semi-rhotic although it is not clearly identified to any particular region or attributed to any defined language shift. The Māori accent varies from the European-origin New Zealand accent.
The English spoken in Asia is predominantly rhotic. Many varieties of Indian English are rhotic owing to the underlying phonotactics of the native Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages whilst some tend to be non-rhotic. In the case of the Philippines, this may be explained because the English that is spoken there is heavily influenced by the American dialect. In addition, many East Asians (in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) who have a good command of English generally have rhotic accents because of the influence of American English. This excludes Hong Kong, whose RP English dialect is a result of its almost 150-year-history as a British Crown colony (later British dependent territory). However, many older (and younger) speakers among South and East Asians speak non-rhotic.
Other Asian regions with non-rhotic English are Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. A typical Malaysian English would be almost totally non-rhotic due to the nonexistence of rhotic endings in both languages of influence, whereas a more educated Malaysian's English may be non-rhotic due to Standard Malaysian English being based on RP (Received Pronunciation).
A typical teenager's Southeast Asian English would be rhotic, mainly because of prominent influence by American English. Spoken English in Myanmar is non-rhotic, but there are a number of English speakers with a rhotic or partially rhotic pronunciation. Sri Lankan English may be rhotic.
Mergers characteristic of non-rhotic accents
Some phonemic mergers are characteristic of non-rhotic accents. These usually include one item that historically contained an R (lost in the non-rhotic accent), and one that never did so. The section below lists mergers in order of approximately decreasing prevalence.
In the terminology of John C. Wells, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets commA and lettER. It is found in all or nearly all non-rhotic accents, and is even present in some accents that are in other respects rhotic, such as those of some speakers in Jamaica and the Bahamas.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets PALM and START. It is found in the speech of the great majority of non-rhotic speakers, including those of England, Wales, the United States, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It may be absent in some non-rhotic speakers in the Bahamas.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets THOUGHT and NORTH. It is found in most of the same accents as the father–farther merger described above, but is absent from the Bahamas and Guyana.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets THOUGHT and FORCE. It is found in those non-rhotic accents containing the pawn–porn merger that have also undergone the horse–hoarse merger. These include the accents of Southern England, Wales, non-rhotic New York City speakers, Trinidad and the Southern hemisphere. In such accents a three-way merger awe-or-ore/oar results.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets BATH and START. It is found in some non-rhotic accents with broad A in words like "bath". It is general in southern England (excluding rhotic speakers), Trinidad, the Bahamas, and the Southern hemisphere. It is a possibility for Welsh, Eastern New England, Jamaican, and Guyanese speakers.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets THOUGHT and CURE. It is found in those non-rhotic accents containing the caught–court merger that have also undergone the pour–poor merger. Wells lists it unequivocally only for the accent of Trinidad, but it is an option for non-rhotic speakers in England, Australia and New Zealand. Such speakers have a potential four–way merger taw-tor-tore-tour.
This merger is present in non-rhotic accents which have undergone the weak-vowel merger. Such accents include Australian, New Zealand, most South African speech, and some non-rhotic English speech (e.g. Norfolk, Sheffield).
A large number of homophonous pairs involve the syllabic -es and agentive-ers suffixes, such as merges-mergers and bleaches-bleachers. Because there are so many, they are excluded from the list of homophonous pairs below.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets GOAT and FORCE. It may be found in some southern U.S. non-rhotic speech, some speakers of African American Vernacular English, some speakers in Guyana and some Welsh speech.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets GOAT and CURE. It may be present in those speakers who have both the dough–door merger described above, and also the pour–poor merger. These include some southern U.S. non-rhotic speakers, some speakers of African American Vernacular English and some speakers in Guyana.
It can be seen in the term "Fo Sho", an imitation of "for sure".
"Often" is pronounced with a sounded T by some speakers.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets LOT and START. It may be present in non-rhotic accents that have undergone the father–bother merger. These may include some New York accents, some southern U.S. accents, and African American Vernacular English.
A merger of /ɜː(r)/ and /ʌ/ occurring for some speakers of Jamaican English making bud and bird homophones as /bʌd/. The conversion of /ɜː/ to [ʌ] or [ə] is also found in places scattered around England and Scotland. Some speakers, mostly rural, in the area from London to Norfolk exhibit this conversion, mainly before voiceless fricatives. This gives pronunciation like first[fʌst] and worse[wʌs]. The word cuss appears to derive from the application of this sound change to the word curse. Similarly, lurve is coined from love.
In Wells' terminology, this consists of the merger of the lexical sets CHOICE and NURSE preconsonantally (so that "stir" and "boy" never rhymed). It was present in older New York and New Orleans regional accents, but became stigmatized and is sharply recessive in those born since the Second World War. This merger is known for the word soitanly, used often by the Three Stooges comedian Curly Howard as a variant of certainly in comedy shorts of the 1930s and 1940s.
In some accents, syllabification may interact with rhoticity, resulting in homophones where non-rhotic accents have centering diphthongs. Possibilities include Korea–career,Shi'a–sheer, and Maia–mire, while skua may be identical with the second syllable of obscure.
^Trudgill, Peter (2000). "Sociohistorical linguistics and dialect survival: a note on another Nova Scotian enclave". In Magnus Leung, ed. Language Structure and Variation. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International. p. 197.
Fisher, John Hurt (2001). "British and American, Continuity and Divergence". In Algeo, John. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume VI: English in North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 59–85.
Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN3-11-016746-8.
Lass, Roger (1999). "Phonology and Morphology". In Lass, Roger. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 56–186. ISBN0-521-26476-6.
Trudgill, Peter (1984). Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.