Sound valuesIn English, the letter r is pronounced in different ways in different accents, but normally has only one sound value in the speech of any individual. As well as occurring before and after vowels (rear, roar), r is also heard after initial consonants as in brown, crown, frown, ground, proud, shroud, trout, thrown, and after s + consonant as in spray, stray, scream. After a vowel, r may precede other consonants as in barb, bard, dwarf, morgue, arc, ark, arch, barque, hurl, harm, barn, farce, hears, furs, burst, harsh, hurt, earth, serve, Xerxes, furze. Final r cannot immediately follow a consonant in English as it does in Welsh (for example, theatr), but to form a syllable requires a vowel letter either after it (acre, BrE theatre) or before it (later, AmE theater).
Rhotic and non-rhoticA major variation with implications for spelling concerns not how, but when, r is pronounced. The accents of English fall into two groups: RHOTIC or r-sounding ACCENTS (in which r is pronounced in all positions in red, credit, and worker) and non-rhotic or r-less accents in which r is pronounced only before a vowel (that is, in rice and price, but not in either position in worker). The presence or absence of /r/ in the pronunciation of words like worker has an effect on the pronunciation of preceding vowels. Rhotic speakers generally distinguish certain words which are homophones for non-rhotic speakers, such as farther/father, iron/ion, tuner/tuna. They do not, however, always distinguish words in the same way: for example, Scots and non-Southern Americans distinguish sauce/source (HOMOPHONES in RP) with different vowel sounds and different realizations of /r/. In some non-rhotic accents, final r is pronounced when the following word begins with a vowel (LINKING R) and an unwritten /r/ (INTRUSIVE R) is commonly pronounced in contexts like Africa/r and Asia, law/r and order, and draw/r/ing. See R-SOUNDS.
Rhotacizing and de-rhotacizingNon-rhotic speakers often cannot tell from pronunciation when to put r in a word and when to leave it out, and are prone to misspellings such as rhotacizing (inserting an r) in *surport for support, and de-rhotacizing (removing an r) in *supprise for surprise. Some written forms reflect this ambivalence. Marm as a clipped form of madam reflects non-rhotic pronunciation and rhymes with charm, whereas the r-less spelling ma'am accords with both types of accent and can rhyme with either calm or jam (however pronounced). Paradoxically, the AmE vulgarism He bust his ass doubly de-rhotacizes He burst his arse, but is common in rhotic AmE speech. Poets on both sides of the Atlantic have sometimes exploited the non-rhotic pronunciation for the sake of rhyme, as in crosses/horses ( Keats) and quarter/water (Long-fellow). The insertion of a vowel after r in alarum, chirrup, sirrah (for alarm, chirp, sir) preserves (and emphasizes) the r-sound in non-rhotic speech.
Double R(1) In word-final position, in some monosyllables when preceded by a single vowel: err, purr, whirr (also whir) (but contrast blur, cur, her, slur, spur, stir and note bur/burr). (2) Medially, in disyllables ending in -y (carry, berry, lorry, hurry) and -ow (narrow, borrow, furrow). (3) Some medial doubling derives from Latin: error, horror, terror and the root terra (Earth, land), as in terrestrial, Mediterranean. Double r can also be a consequence of the assimilation of certain LATIN prefixes to roots beginning with r: ad- in arrive, con- in correct, in- in irremediate and irrigate, sub- in surreptitious. (4) When suffixes beginning with a vowel are attached to stressed syllables ending in r: blurred, averred (contrast severed), deferring (contrast suffering), referral, referrable (optionally also referable, often with stress on the initial syllable: compare reference). (5) The discrepancy of rr in embarrass, but r in harass reflects French embarrasser, harasser. The OED attests variation in both words in English. (6) In some words, although doubling is obligatory in the source language, it is optional in English borrowings: English garrotte/garotte, guerrilla/guerilla, Spanish garrote, guerrilla.
Syllabic RDifficulties in spelling arise from complex, unpredictable relationships between r and preceding unstressed vowel sounds and letters. Like the phonetically similar consonants l, m, n, the letter r functions in rhotic accents simultaneously as a spoken vowel and as a consonant (though less obviously in non-rhotic speech). The r is then syllabic, as in acre. In non-rhotic accents, the r-sound has disappeared in these contexts, leaving schwa, with the result that pairs like beater/beta, pucker/pukka, rotor/rota, peninsular/peninsula are homophones in RP and similar accents. This syllabic r or the schwa which has replaced it may combine with a preceding long vowel or diphthong to form a single syllable, with the result that such words as lair, layer are homophones and rhyme with mayor/mare and prayer.
In acre (with ‘magic’ e), and BrE centre, AmE center, the schwa in non-rhotic pronunciation is represented by the r (the final e being silent). The effect is striking in inflected forms such as BrE centred (compare entered). Syllabic r creates uncertainty in spelling, because the schwa sound may be spelt with any vowel letter or several digraphs: lumbar, cancer, nadir, rector, murmur, martyr, neighbour. Pronunciation (especially in RP and related accents) is no guide; when in doubt, the less confident writer often settles on an -er form: *burgler for burglar, *docter for doctor.
The problem of spelling syllabic r (or final schwa) is compounded by numerous pairs of homophones: altar/alter, auger/augur, calendar/calender, caster/castor, censer/censor, dolar/dolour, filter/philtre, fisher/fissure, friar/frier, hangar/hanger, lumbar/lumber, manner/manor, meddler/medlar, meter/metre, miner/minor, prier/prior, raiser/razor, rigger/rigour, roomer/rumour, sailer/sailor, sucker/succour, taper/tapir, tenner/tenor. Homophone pairs in which the schwa + r sequence is medial pose similar problems: humerus/humorous, literal/littoral, savory/savoury, stationary/stationery, summary/summery. Further problems for learners and weak spellers arise with words which have similar phonological but different orthographic patterns: ministry/monastery, mystery/history, disparate/desperate, deliberate/elaborate, disastrous/boisterous, leprous/obstreperous, wintry/summery.
Simple vowels before R(1) The values of vowel letters before r are often modified. In monosyllables, if a and o precede r, they are lengthened: star, hard, harm, barn, harsh, cart, carve; ford, torn. However, e, i, u, y typically merge their values in RP to a lengthened schwa: her, sir, cur, herd, turf, urge, irk, bird, curd, fern, turn, hurt, serve, myrrh. The vowel digraphs ea and ou when followed by r may also have this value: earn, journey. These alternatives generate pairs of homophones: berth/birth, BrE curb/kerb, earn/urn, fir/fur, heard/herd, pearl/purl, serf/surf, serge/surge, tern/turn. Such long pronunciations also occur in the stressed final syllables of disyllables: impart, suborn, concern, confer, concur. However, when a w-sound precedes these vowel + r patterns, the values of a and o are commonly altered to those of o and u respectively, as in dwarf (compare orphan), word (compare curd), but not after silent w (whore, sword). (2) Especially in the accents of England, if an unstressed vowel between two rs is elided, single r may be heard as in February (‘Febry’, ‘Febuary’), library (‘libry’), literary (‘litry’), temporary (‘tempry’).
Long vowels before RThe greatest complexity arises after long vowels or diphthongs, as a result both of the rhotic/non-rhotic split and of the effect of r on preceding vowels. When final silent e follows r, preceding vowels are typically long, but often modified: compare hare/hate, here/eve, hire/hive, more/mope, lure/lute. Different spellings for these vowels produce inconsistency in many common words: (1) Pare compared with pair, pear and contrasted with bar and anomalous are. (2) Here compared with hear and contrasted with were, there, where and the two pronunciations of tear. (3) Fire contrasted with fiery, wiry. (4) Pure compared with the varying value of -ure in sure. (5) Sore, morning are homophones of soar, mourning only in some accents. (6) The -our sequence is confused. The forms -our and -ower, as in flour/flower, may represent the standard value, but course, court, four have the vowel of or in RP; there is uncertainty about rarer words such as dour, gourd; and the common word your may be a homophone of yore or of ewer. In many non-rhotic accents, sore/soar/saw (but not sour, sower) are homophones. Similar variety prevails with the vowels in moor/more/maw. The oldest forms of RP, and many other accents, distinguish all three; others merge the first or last two; while recent RP and related accents merge all three.
Intervocalic RIn polysyllables, r between vowels may follow a short or long vowel: (1) Short a, e, i, o, y (not u) before r in stressed syllables: arid, character, parachute, erudite, miracle, spirit, coracle, origin, courier, syrup, pyramid. (2) Long vowels in stressed syllables: area, parent, vary, hero, period, pirate, virus, story, floral, during fury, spurious. (3) The vowel before rr in the stressed syllables of polysyllables normally has the standard short value: carry, barrier, error, ferry, mirror, stirrup, sorrow, hurry. However, values differ between warring/warrior, the noun furrier and the comparative of the adjective furry, and between the verb to tarry and the adjective tarry from tar.
Distinctive combinations(1) I nitial r follows silent w in some words of OLD ENGLISH origin: wrap, wraith, wreck, wriggle, write, wrong, wrought, wrung. (2) The digraph rh occurs word-initially in GREEK-derived words, representing classical Greek r with rough breathing (‘hr’): rhapsody, rhetoric, rhinoceros, rhododendron, rhubarb, rhythm. In word-medial and word-final positions, the combination is rrh, following the classical Greek practice: antirrhinum, catarrhine, diarrhoea/diarrhea, haemorrhage/hemorrhage, platyrrhine; catarrh, myrrh. (3) Rh also occurs initially in WELSH names: Rhoddri (man's first name), Rhondda (place-name). (4) The combination shr and sr occur in IndE in SANSKRIT loanwords such as the titles Sri/Shri/Shree and Srimati/Shrimati/Shreemati, as in Sri and Srimati Gupta (Mr and Mrs Gupta). (5) Initial vr occurs in vroom (the noise of a powerful engine revving).
Historical points(1) There has been occasional variation between r and other alveolar consonants: glamour derives from grammar; colonel was formerly coronel (see L); the rr in porridge and single r in porage were originally the tt in pottage: compare SCOUSE. (2) The r-sound has disappeared in speak (compare GERMAN sprechen), in palsy (ultimately from Greek-derived paralysis), and in the colloquial forms bust for burst, cussed for cursed. (3) Sometimes, an r-sound has switched position with a following vowel, as in burn/brand and work/wrought (dating from Old English), brid (in MIDDLE ENGLISH) now bird; r occurring before the vowel in three but after it in third, thirty: see METATHESIS.
American and British differencesVariation in the use of r occurs between most BrE forms ending in consonant + re and their AmE equivalents, which are written consonant + er: BrE calibre/AmE caliber, centre/center, fibre/fiber, goitre/goiter, litre/liter, manoeuvre/maneuver, meagre/meager, metre/meter, ochre/ocher, reconnoitre/reconnoiter, sabre/saber, saltpetre/saltpeter, sceptre/scepter, sombre/somber, spectre/specter, theatre/theater. However, no such difference arises after a long vowel + c or g: both varieties have the same spellings for acre, lucre, mediocre, and ogre. See BURR, RHOTACISM.
R1 / är/ (also r) • n. (pl. Rsor R's) the eighteenth letter of the alphabet. ∎ denoting the next after Q in a set of items, categories, etc. PHRASES: the R months the months with R in their names (September to April), considered to be the season for eating oysters. the three Rs reading, writing, and arithmetic, regarded as the fundamentals of learning. R2 • abbr. ∎ rand: a farm worth nearly R1,3-million. ∎ Réaumur: 198.6 °R. ∎ Regina or Rex: Elizabeth R. ∎ (also ®) registered as a trademark. ∎ (in the U.S.) Republican: congressman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois). ∎ restricted, a rating in the Voluntary Movie Rating System that children under 17 require an accompanying parent or adult guardian for admission. ∎ (on a gearshift) reverse. ∎ (R.) River (chiefly on maps): R. Cherwell. ∎ roentgen(s). ∎ rook (in recording moves in chess): 21.Rh4. • symb. ∎ Chem. an unspecified alkyl or other organic radical or group. ∎ electrical resistance. ∎ Chem. the gas constant.
r • abbr. ∎ recto. ∎ (giving position or direction) right: l to r: Evan, Nick, and David. ∎ Law rule: under r 7.4 (6) the court may hear an application immediately. • symb. ∎ radius: 2πr. ∎ Statistics correlation coefficient: sigmoidoscopic and symptom scores also showed a significant correlation with each other (r = 0.91).
1. Abbreviation for right, e.g. R.H., right hand, in pf. mus.
2. Abbreviation for Responsorium in church mus. (Gregorian chant).
3. Abbreviation for ripieno in early orch. mus.
4. Abbreviation for clavier de récit, the swell manual, in Fr. org. mus.
5. Abbreviation for ritardando, found particularly in Elgar's scores.
6. In catalogues of works of Vivaldi, abbreviation for Rinaldi or for Ryom (latter usually in form RV).
• (ital.) Maths., symbol for a polar coordinate
• (bold ital.) Maths., Physics, symbol for position vector
• (ital.) symbol for radius
• (bold ital.) Maths., symbol for radius vector
• (ital.) Ecology, symbol for rate of increase (as in r-strategist)
• Music ray (in tonic sol-fa)
• Biochem., symbol for ribonucleoside (preceding the nucleoside symbol; as in rA, ribosyladenine)
See also don't eat oysters unless there is an R in the month at oyster, the three R's.