The R sound in British and American English

Learn how to pronounce the R sound in British and American English. Jay has a rhotic accent and Vicki has a non-rhotic accent. You’ll hear how that affects our pronunciation of R before consonants and at the end of words. We’ll help you recognize the pronunciation differences and also share some tips for making perfect R sounds in both British and American English.

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The R sound in British and American English

Hey Jay. Have you seen my keys anywhere?
Yes. Where were they…? Ah. Yes. Here they are.
Thank you. You know Jay, you make rhotic R sounds.
Really? Erotic R sounds?
No. Rhotic R sounds. It means you pronounce your Rs strongly.
Oh.

We received a request from someone called S.
They said ‘Can you do a pronunciation video on the British and American pronunciations of ‘ear’. Also, maybe include ‘air’ in that video too.
What a good idea! Thank you S.
Yes. Vicki’s British and I’m American, so we can do this.
That’s right. It’s one of the big differences in our accents. We say our R sounds differently.
Yeah.
So listen to how Jay and I say the words.

Ear.
Ear.
Air.
Air.

Did you hear the difference at the end of the words? Jay pronounced the r sound more strongly.

Ear.
Ear.
Air.
Air.

Linguists sometimes divide accents and dialects into 2 types: rhotic and non-rhotic accents. Rhotic is when people pronounce the R sounds strongly, like Jay.

Ear, air.

And in non-rhotic accents like mine, we sometimes drop the R sound or say it very weakly.

Ear, air.

There’s a lot of regional variation though.
Yes. There are parts of the UK where people have rhotic accents like Jay. For example, Scotland and Ireland and in the south west of England too
And there are parts of the US where they say the R sound like Vicki, like New England and parts of the south.
But generally speaking, accents in the UK are non-rhotic and accents in the US are rhotic.
So my accent is rhotic, and Vicki’s is non-rhotic.
Now, this doesn’t mean I never pronounce r sounds. I do. I say them clearly when they come in front of a vowel, much like Jay.

Red.
Red.
Kilogram.
Kilogram.
Carry.
Carry.

So we sound pretty similar there. But if the R sound is followed by a consonant, or if it’s at the end of a word, I’ll say it VERY gently. Let’s have some examples.

Heard
Heard
Work.
Work.
Turn.
Turn.
World.
World.
Hard.
Hard.
Large.
Large.
Nearly.
Nearly.
North.
North.
Hurt.
Hurt.
Park.
Park.

Did you hear the difference? Jay’s R sounds were stronger. Let’s see what happens when the R is at the end of the word now.

Farmer.
Farmer.
Here.
Here.
Brother.
Brother.
Were.
Were.
Where.
Where.
Door.
Door.
Measure.
Measure.
Weather.
Weather.
Clever.
Clever.

So in British English, it sounds like you don’t pronounce the r sound in the middle and at the end of words?
Hmmm. Yes, but my feeling is, we do pronounce it. It’s just very weak and gentle.
The R sound is one of the big differences in our accents.
We live in the US and when I speak, people normally understand me just fine, but sometimes I have to change my R sounds to try to sound American. Like, we live on a street called Arch Street. How do you say that Jay?
Arch Street.
Arch Street.
Arch Street.
You see his R sound is stronger. So if I get in a taxi, I try to copy him and I say Arrrch Street.
Oh that’s good!
Yes, well I want to be sure the taxi driver knows where to take me.
Oh. Tell everyone your refrigerator story.
OK. We needed to buy a fridge so called a department store and it had an automated voice recognition system, so I was talking to a machine not a human being. And it said ‘What department do you want?’ so I said ‘fridges’ and it said, ‘We don’t recognize that request’. So I concentrated very hard and I said Rrrefrridgeratorrrs, and it put me straight through.
Ha! So if you want to sound American, make sure you pronounce your R sounds.
Yes. We should talk about that because the R sound is one of the most difficult English sounds for my students to make.
The first thing to understand is your tongue is a very flexible instrument. You can push it out and make it pointy, or you can pull it in. For an R you need to pull it in and back so it gets fatter and thicker. The sides of your tongue might touch the inside of your teeth at the back. Rrrrr. The most common mistake my students make is they let the tip of their tongue touch the top of their mouth. Don’t do that. Your tongue can curl up and get close, but it must not touch. Rrrrr.

Rrrr.

You can hold out this sound. Try it. Rrrrr. You don’t want to drop your jaw.

Rrrun – run.
Rrrun – run.
Rrran – ran.
Rrran – ran.

In American English the lips round a little when R is at the start of a word. There’s less rounding of the lips in British English.

Red.
Red.
Wrote.
Wrote.

When R is at the end of words, there’s not much rounding in British or American.

Great. So is that it?
Yes. And I need to go now. Where did you park the car, Jay?
You mean where did I park the car? In the garage.
The garage. Bye-bye everyone.
Bye-bye.

Click here for some more pronunciation lessons.
Click here for more videos about British and American English.

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