That Crazy English “R”
I’m amazed at how well my clients do with some of our peculiar English sounds. In another blog, I wrote about “Those Pesky ‘th’ Sounds,” but, to my mind, they’re a piece of cake compared with the peculiarities of the English “r.”
Most of the world’s languages take a much more sensible approach to the “dog’s letter” (as the Romans called it, for its resemblance to the sound of a snarling dog) and treat “r” as a bona fide consonant with full family privileges. The tongue tip hits the roof of the mouth somewhere just behind the top teeth, once, twice, or more times to produce a tapped, flapped, or trilled sound. (I’ll demonstrate.) Some languages have the back of the tongue doing the work against the soft palate. (I’ll demonstrate.) The chances are that most of you reading this heard me make something like the sound you use in your own first language.
And whether the “r” precedes the vowel as in rye, pry, try, cry, etc., or follows it in art, earth, orb, ear, etc., most languages treat “r” the same way. Pronouncing these words that way we will hear them as rye, pry, try, cry, art, earth, orb, ear.
But the English “r” consonant is not nearly so vigorous; it’s more like a vowel. There’s little or no direct contact of the tongue with the roof of the mouth. Demonstrating slowly we hear round, rich, pray, try, crow, sorry, carry.
You’ve already noticed that most English speakers treat an “r” before a vowel differently from the way they do when it follows one. A Standard British English speaker will say roar, sounding only the first “r,” while most American English speakers say roar, sounding both. Of course, among the many Englishes around the world, we hear various styles in the treatment of this letter. My Scottish friends might say, “Carol Riley brought her parents to the circus on Thursday morning.” In London they might say, “Carol Riley brought her parents to the circus on Thursday morning.” In Sydney, they might say, “Carol Riley brought her parents to the circus on Thursday morning.” Here in Lawrence, Kansas, where I live, they might say, “Carol Riley brought her parents to the circus on Thursday morning.” Our friend, “r,” is very versatile fellow indeed!
I haven’t forgotten that some of my friends from Asia have a hard time with the difference between “l” and “r” sounds. Laurie’s really sorry is the sort of challenging exercise we’ll work on another time.
Closing with a fun exercise, here’s a practice sentence with the letter “r” in several difficult phonetic contexts, and I’ll speak it in both the American and the British style. Try both ways yourself:
Larry Porter cringed in horror as the strange, furry creature from his story peered eerily around the corner of the library.
As we say in the theatre, “Break a leg!”