Definition and Examples of Rhotic and Non-Rhotic Speech

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

two kids, one holding up large letter R
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In phonology and sociolinguistics, the term rhoticity refers broadly to the sounds of the "r" family. More specifically, linguists commonly make distinctions between rhotic and non-rhotic dialects or accents. Simply put, rhotic speakers pronounce the /r/ in words like large and park, while non-rhotic speakers generally don't pronounce the /r/ in these words. Non-rhotic is also known as "r"-dropping.

Linguist William Barras notes that "levels of rhoticity can vary between speakers in a community, and the process of a loss of rhoticity is a gradual one, rather than the sharp binary distinction implied by the labels rhotic and non-rhotic" ("Lancashire" in Researching Northern English, 2015).


From the Greek letter rho (the letter r)

Examples and Observations

"[C]onsider dialects that 'drop r' such as varieties of English spoken in the United Kingdom, the southern United States, and New England. Speakers of these 'r-Iess' dialects don't drop r just anywhere, they do so only under certain phonological conditions. For example, speakers drop r in a word when it follows a vowel, and would therefore not pronounce the r in the following words:

heart, farm, car

But they would pronounce r in these words, because r does not follow a vowel:

red, brick, scratch

The r-rule in words is even more complex; though you may be familiar with the phrase 'pahk the cah in Hahvad Yahd,' a stock phrase used to imitate this dialectical feature, real speakers of such varieties of English in fact retain a final r when the following word begins with a vowel. Speakers say 'pahk the cain Hahvad Yahd.' (A similar rules accounts for so-called r-intrusion, where some speakers add r to words that end in vowels before another word that begins with a vowel, as in . . . That idear is a good one.)"
(Anne Lobeck and Kristin Denham, Navigating English Grammar: A Guide to Analyzing Real Language. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)

Rhotic and Non-Rhotic Accents

"[Rhotic accents are] accents of English in which non-prevocalic /r/ is pronounced, i.e. in which words like star have retained the original pronunciation /star/ 'starr' rather than having the newer pronunciation /sta:/ 'stah,' where the /r/ has been lost. Rhotic accents of English include nearly all accents of Scottish and Irish English, most accents of Canadian and American English, accents from the south-west and north-west of England, some varieties of Caribbean English and a small number of New Zealand accents. Non-rhotic accents are those of Australia, South Africa, eastern and central England, some parts of the Caribbean, and a number of places on the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada, as well as African American Vernacular English." (Peter Trudgill, A Glossary of Sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press, 2003)

Rhoticity in British English

"While the dropping of 'r' had spread [from London and East Anglia] to most other accents of England by the eighteenth century, rhoticity remains a feature of accents spoken in the geographically more extreme areas of England today: the southwest, northwest, and northeast. This distribution suggests that the loss of this feature has been spreading outwards from the eastern dialects since the fifteenth century, but has not yet affected these few remaining strongholds. From this development, we might predict that postvocalic 'r' will at some stage be entirely lost from accents of English, though it is impossible to determine exactly when this process will reach completion."
(Simon Horobin, How English Became English: A Short History of a Global Language. Oxford University Press, 2016)

A Change 'From Below'

"Throughout most of the nineteenth century, non-rhotic pronunciations continued to be condemned, but by the time Daniel Jones's pronouncing dictionary was published in 1917, non-rhotic pronunciations had become characteristic of RP. The spread of non-rhotic pronunciation can thus be seen as a change 'from below,' beginning in nonstandard London English and spreading geographically northwards and socially 'upwards' until, in the early twenty-first century, it is the rhotic pronunciations that are marked as nonstandard in England. Even within rhotic areas there is evidence that younger people are less likely to pronounce /r/ in words such as arm. In other words, rhoticity is a recessive feature in England."
(Joan C. Beal, Introduction to Regional Englishes: Dialect Variation in England. Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

Rhoticity in New York City

"Sociolinguistically, there is more social stratification on the British model in the accents of New York City than anywhere else in North America, with upper social class accents having many fewer local features than lower-class accents. . . . New York City English, like that of Boston, is non-rhotic, and linking and intrusive /r/ are usual. As a consequence, the local accent shares with RP and the other non-rhotic accents the vowels /Iə/, /ɛə/, /ʊə/, /ɜ/ as in peer, pair, poor, bird. However, as in the Boston area, younger speakers are now becoming increasingly rhotic, especially among higher social class groups." (Peter Trudgill and Jean Hannah, International English: A Guide to the Varieties of Standard English, 5th ed. Routledge, 2013)

The Distribution of 'R'

"The distribution of /r/ is one of the most widely researched sociolinguistic features. [William] Labov (1966/2006), in a groundbreaking study, reports on the social stratification of rhoticity in New York City. His general results are that the absence of [r] in coda position is generally associated with lower social prestige and informal registers. Labov argues that rhoticity is a marker of New York City speech, since it shows style-shifting and hypercorrection. This would not be the case if New Yorkers were not aware of this difference, even unconsciously. The marker status of rhoticity is further supported by [Kara] Becker (2009), a study conducted on rhoticity in the Lower East Side forty years later. As she notes, 'There is much evidence that both New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike do identify non-rhoticity as a salient feature of NYCE [New York City English], one that (in combination with other NYCE features or even alone) can index a New York persona' (Becker 2009: p644)."(Péter Rácz, Salience in Sociolinguistics: A Quantitative ApproachWalter de Gruyter, 2013)

Omitting the 'R'

"In terms of phonology, many AAE speakers in New York City and many parts of the country tend to omit /r/ when it follows a vowel. This pattern, known as 'post-vocalic /r/-lessness' or “non-rhoticity,” leading to the pronunciation of 'park' as pahk and 'car' as cah. It is not unique to AAE and is found in the wider New York City vernacular among older and working-class white speakers, but not very commonly among young, upper middle class Whites." (Cecelia Cutler, White Hip Hoppers, Language and Identity in Post-Modern America. Routledge, 2014)

The Intrusive 'R'

"Intrusive /r/, heard in expressions like the idear of it and the lawr of the sea, arises by analogy with words like father, which quite regularly have a final /r/ before a vowel, but not before a consonant or a pause. For a long time, intrusive /r/ has been normal in educated speech after /ǝ/, so that the idear of it and Ghanar and India are perfectly acceptable. Until relatively recently, however, intrusive /r/ has been stigmatized when it occurred after other vowels, so that the Shahr of Persia and the lawr of the sea were considered vulgar. This now seems to have changed, however, and intrusive /r/ is widespread in educated speech after any vowel. Sometimes the intrusive /r/ goes on to attach itself permanently to the stem of the word, leading to such forms as drawring board and withdrawral. These are quite common, but probably not yet accepted as standard." (Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw, The English Language: A Historical Introduction, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2012)

The Lighter Side of 'R' Dropping

"'R-dropping' America has inspired a humorous theorem called the Law of Conservation of R's (formulated by Edward Scher in 1985), which holds that an r missing from one word will turn up in excess in another: fawth (fourth), for example, is balanced by idears or the common second r in sherbert." (Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms. Facts on File, 2000)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Rhotic and Non-Rhotic Speech." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Rhotic and Non-Rhotic Speech. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Rhotic and Non-Rhotic Speech." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).