rhoticity: pertaining to a variety or dialect of English in which r is pronounced not only in pre-vocalic position but also before a consonant or word-finally

New Scientist headline, 30 December 2023

So, there’s an American professor of theology visiting England for the first time. As his train departs from London King’s Cross station, he hears an announcement over the train’s public-address system: “Good morning, this is your guard speaking.”
And he thinks he’s having a religious experience.

Old phonology joke

The image at the head of this post records how New Scientist magazine ended 2023 with a bang, by printing a typographical error in as large a font as possible, in their issue of 30 December. The word, of course, is armada, with only one r.

It’s the sort of spelling error that can tell you something about the accent of the person who committed it. In the Received Pronunciation of British English, and in many dialects of Southern British English, armada is pronounced /ɑːˈmɑːdə/, because these accents are non-rhotic—the letter r is not pronounced if it occurs at the end of a word or before a consonant (positions that are called post-vocalic). Whereas people with a rhotic accent, like most of us here in Scotland, would say /ɑːrˈmɑːdə/, sounding the r.

The vanishing r in non-rhotic accents often leaves a trace behind. Sometimes this is heard as compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Or, at the end of a word, the r can turn into a short neutral vowel (technically called a schwa, and phonetically symbolized by an inverted e). So tour, fear, tire and pour come out as /tʊə/, /fɪə/, /taɪə/ and /pɔə/. But if the last vowel is already a schwa, the r just disappears—hotter is pronounced /ˈhɒtə/, for instance.

So there are often clues from a non-rhotic accent, telling us where a vanished r should be. But not always, and that’s where the difficulty with armada arises. If you have heard it pronounced by a non-rhotic speaker, but have never seen it written down, then there could be an r after one or both of those long a’s, or no r at all. The writer of the New Scientist headline went the whole hog and stuck in two. (And we should not rush to blame Leah Crane, the author of the article, because headlines are often inflicted on writers, sight unseen, by their editors.)

Armada is a rare example of the problem. The one I most commonly encounter is peninsula, which often gains a spurious terminal r. Here is one example from the World Wildlife Fund, for instance:

REUTERS – Most of the glaciers on the Antarctic peninsular are in headlong retreat because of climate change, a leading scientist said on Thursday.

That one will elude a simple spelling checker, because peninsular is a perfectly acceptable adjective—just not the right word in this setting.

The same thing can happen in reverse—the spelling error drops an r that should be there. For example, Australian accents are generally non-rhotic, and the Nullarbor Plain in the south of the country fairly frequently turns up spelled “Nullabor”.

After all that, you’re perhaps still wondering about the relevance of the alleged joke with which I also headed the post. It’s also about the perils of non-rhoticity. The southern English train guard pronounces guard as /ɡɑːd/—which is how the American theologian pronounces God.

There are other potential problems. Non-rhotic speakers in Britain, Australia and New York (but not in South Africa or southern states of the USA) usually restore the missing /r/ sound at the end of a word if the following word starts with a vowel—because the r is now sandwiched between two vowels, which is a location in which a non-rhotic speaker will pronounce it. So while in Received Pronunciation far is pronounced /fɑː/, Far East becomes /fɑːrist/. This pronunciation is called a linking /r/. But this unconscious phonetic habit can lure such speakers into pronouncing an unwritten linking /r/. So “law and order” is pronounced is if it were “lawr and order”, “Pizza Express” becomes “Pizzer Express” and “Obama administration” becomes “Obamer administration”. And it can even happen in the middle of words, if two suitable vowels butt against each other—so we often hear “drawring” instead of “drawing”.

All that’s happening here is that there’s an unconscious phonetic pattern in operation, which is being applied consistently. But the nineteenth-century prescriptivists, who nonsensically chose to pick on people for splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, also decided that daring to utter an /r/ that wasn’t supported by an r on the printed page was a Bad Thing, and dubbed that usage the intrusive r. (Which is laughably odd, given that “correct” pronunciation, for these same prescriptivists, involves not pronouncing a whole bunch of r’s that are on the page.)

And so, anxious about being judged by their intrusive r’s (oooh, missus), some non-rhotic speakers nervously omit a linking /r/ when there actually is an r on the page. So Far East comes out as /fɑːist/, the same way it’s pronounced by non-rhotic speakers in South Africa and the southern USA.

As all those r’s in English spelling suggest, everyone who spoke English was once a rhotic speaker. Rhoticity was still weakly present in Southern British English during the seventeenth century (Shakespeare would probably have pronounced all his r’s), but it faded away during the eighteenth. And this, so the story goes, had an effect on the rhoticity of other versions of English—the USA and Canada received their first English colonies while rhoticity was still common in Britain, and so largely speak rhotic versions of English today. Whereas South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were settled by English speakers after non-rhoticity had become established in Britain, and so they now speak non-rhotic versions of English.

But of course it’s more complicated than that. The USA, in particular, had a patchy relationship with rhoticity. The eastern seaboard and Gulf coastline of the United States had continuing frequent contact with British English after non-rhoticity had become established in Britain, and so non-rhoticity became a feature of accents in those regions, while rhoticity persisted in the centre, west and north. But, after the Second World War, American sentiment turned against non-rhoticity, so that General American is now rhotic, and rhoticity is also creeping into the traditional accents of the southern USA. There are holdouts, however, in New York and Boston. (I remember being puzzled, in Boston’s Logan Airport, at being told to present my ticket at the “doughy”. I had to replay that in my head a few times before I managed to reconstruct “doorway”.)

So much for rhoticity. Time for the usual quick tour of the word’s etymological connections.

The noun rhoticity and adjective rhotic derive from Greek rho, the name of the seventeenth letter of the Greek alphabet, ρ, which was pronounced /r/.

In phonology, rhotacism is the rendering of a consonant (typically d, l, n, s, t or z) as an /r/ sound. The Liverpudlian singer Cilla Black famously demonstrated this with her much-imitated phrase, “a lorra laughs” (“a lot of laughs”). And in Scottish Gaelic, the consonant cluster cn is pronounced /kr/—so cnoc, “hill”, sounds like “crock”; and cnap, “lump”, sounds like … well, you get the idea. The process is called rhotacization, a word that can also be applied to vowels that take on a hint of an /r/ sound because they precede a letter r—a characteristic feature of American English.

Confusingly, the word rhotacism has a different meaning in speech pathology—it designates difficulty in pronouncing the /r/ sound. The specific problem, common in small children, of substituting a /w/ for an /r/, used to be called rhotacismus.* Another example in English is the r grasseyé, in which /r/ becomes /ʁ/, the uvular fricative sound that characterizes the French pronunciation of the letter r (with a sort of “about to spit” friction at the back of the throat), but which isn’t used in English.

Finally, there are two different usages in which Greek rho arrives in English usage unchanged. We’re all familiar, from Second World War films if nothing else, with those circular radar displays on which a beam sweeps around the screen (following the rotation of the radar transmitter-receiver dish), and highlights distant objects (ships, planes) as transient bright blips in the beam. Those are called rho-theta displays, from the Greek letters ρ and θ—the first designating the distance from which the radar echo is received, and the second the bearing.

And then there’s the chi-rho symbol (a superimposition of Greek letters Χ and Ρ to form ☧). These are the first two letters of Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, “Christ”, and the chi-rho has been used by Christians since the second century, as a monogram symbolizing Jesus Christ. Hence its alternative name, the chrismon, from Latin Christus monogramma.

And I hope, whatever your accent, you’ve discovered something interesting about it from this little dissertation.

* Rhotacismus was the speech impediment suffered by the Elmer Fudd character in Bugs Bunny cartoons, back in the days when speech impediments were considered funny.
That odd word grasseyé is the past participle of the French verb grasseyer, which means “to pronounce an r as a uvular fricative”—that is, in the French manner. I find it oddly satisfying that the r in grasseyer is an r grasseyé.

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