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I speak North American English. When I pronounce "R", the fleshy part under my chin inside my jawbone tends to move up. When I stress the "R", it really moves up and back. I think the back of my throat is constricting, or the root of my tongue is making my vocal tract smaller.

  1. What is the muscle(s) doing that called?
  2. How is that sound described linguistically?
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The sound is called retroflex approximant, which means that it produces a stream of air not narrow enough to be classified as a fricative consonant("sh","v") but also not wide enough to be classified as a vowel. The retroflexion means that the tongue is curling backwards while producing the sound.

I am not sure what is the muscle you mean.

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  • Is North American English /r/ always retroflex? I seem to remember reading something that indicated that this is not a safe assumption to make. – brass tacks Aug 13 '15 at 16:09
  • As far as I know, yes it is. – czypsu Aug 13 '15 at 16:26
  • Wikipedia says the /r/ can also be classified as a postalveolar approximant, but it does still involve a certain degree of retroflection. It is easy to notice when you compare it for example to the /r/ of Standard British English which is just alveolar approximant. – czypsu Aug 13 '15 at 16:38
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Approaching the matter as a phonologist, I could ask what assimilations does "r" participate in. When "r" follows "t" or "d" in NA English, it becomes an r-colored palato-alveolar fricative, as in "treat" or "dream". In Hawaiian English, "r" causes preceding "s" to become palato-alveolar "sh", as in "street". This suggests that "r" is palato-alveolar, which I take to be, essentially, alveolar, but with the blade of the tongue raised and the tip of the tongue lowered.

I don't know what effect there is on the root of the tongue for an "r", but I'd expect the root to be advanced (rather than retracted, as you report), since "r" has some affinity with palatals, and they cause enlargement of the pharynx.

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  • Significantly, American English rhotic /r/ is rounded. And I have heard phoneticians talk about an alternative /r/ articulation, with the tongue bunched and retracted instead of extended and advanced. – jlawler Sep 13 '15 at 16:26

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