The /r/ and its subtleties


I was listening to a radio programme about the Bronze Age when one of the speakers, who was talking about that metal, said the following sentence:

sound_loud_speaker One very important skill was finding the ores.

It suddenly struck me that, for someone not aware of when the letter r  is pronounced and when it isn’t, the word ores  /ɔːz/ might be difficult to understand. As a non-native speaker, I’ve always found this quirky thing about the r  somewhat disconcerting. In some varieties of English (American, Scottish, Irish…), the r  is always pronounced when it’s found in the spelling, whereas in others (British, Australian, South-African…) the r  is silent unless it’s followed by a vowel. They are known as rhotic and non-rhotic varieties respectively.

In British English (the variety I speak, which is non-rhotic), this gives rise to many sets of homophones (as though there weren’t enough already in English!). Court is pronounced as caught  /kɔːt/, and floor as flaw  /flɔː/ and ore as awe  (and oar and or) /ɔː/. It is a feature that puts an additional strain on the non-native listener, who has to choose among different words that sound the same. And, although this is normally done through context, it is certainly true that it produces some strange sounds. This is what happens with the word mayor, in which the absence of the r  is compounded by the smoothing of the previous triphthong, and this is the result:

sound_loud_speaker “You know, he’s a bussinesman”. “The mayor?” “The mayor“. /m/

A particularly difficult case is the word iron, which of course is exceptional because the r  isn’t pronounced even though it’s followed by a vowel in the spelling. And, again, the smoothing of the triphthong makes it even more difficult. Listen to these two examples:

sound_loud_speaker But perhaps the most interesting discovery of all was the remains of a furnace, dating from 5th century B.C. and used for smelting iron. /aɪən/

sound_loud_speaker A blacksmith with an iron bar hitting random Frenchmen in the street over the head. /ən ˈaən bɑː/


The rhotic/non-rhotic dilemma has always fascinated me. I really think that as non-native speakers we have to choose how we do it and stick to it for the sake of consistency (and of course this is embedded in the broader question of which variety of English we speak). I find pros and cons in both, actually. I admit non-rhoticity makes the understanding of some words more difficult, but to a certain extent it’s similar to what happens in American English with the letter t, which is dropped or produced as a tap on many occasions. This, too, results in many challenging words for the non-accustomed listener. On the other hand, I’ve always found it easier to speak in a non-rhotic variety, but this is a personal idiosyncrasy of mine, I suppose.

In any case, when choosing where you say the r  or not, keep in mind that this sound is not always the same in the different varieties of English. The American /r/ is rather different from the British, and both of them are really poles apart from the Scottish /r/, which might sound very strange indeed (but lovely, of course).