Given that there are some languages that treat /r/ and /l/ as a vowel, such as Czech and Hindi, I am wondering how come the same isn't true in some varieties of English.

As a native English speaker of the American West, I have noticed that we pronounce many of our /ə/ + /ɹ/ and/or /ɫ/ using just those liquid sounds.

The best example is how every Arabic speaker I have met has trouble with the pronunciation of the word "world", and usually realizes it as something like [ˈwɔr-lɛd]. I only noticed that when I try to explain to them how I pronounce it, I have to omit all 'vowels'; [ˈwɹ-ɫd].

In the pronunciation around Los Angeles, it seems many of us follow this pattern with a whole category of words including:

pattern - [ˈpʰæ-ɾɹn] or [ˈpʰæɾ-ɹn]

stirred - [stɹd]

measure - [ˈmɛ-ʒɹ]

It doesn't seem to be accepted practice to consider these liquids as vowels at least by dictionaries or Wikipedia, but when I try to pronounce these words the way the authorities presume, it sounds like I am speaking with a different accent.

As a caveat, I will state that I've heard virtually only exceptions to this from speakers anywhere east of Denver, Cheyenne or El Paso.

3 Answers 3


These syllabic consonants (that's what the technical term is) are totally present in English. There is no true vowel in 'world' for me either, the [ɹ] is the syllable nucleus. It doesn't honestly make much sense to me either why Wikipedia and others don't seem willing to transcribe them as such - my guess would be that they haven't yet fully dropped a traditional 'English syllables must have at least one vowel in them' mindset.

Whether or not these syllabic consonants are phonemic is a bit of a hairier question. I would venture to guess that they're not - I would say 'fur' is still phonemically /fəɹ/ (or whatever that vowel is), but that /ə/ is one of the vowels that's deleted before /ɹ/, so the word comes out as [fɹ̩ː]. English vowels and their allophony can be pretty screwy.

  • Phonemically, /r/ appears phonetically in a number of different ways in English. There are many non-rhotic lects, for instance, where /r/ appears as length or some other feature on the preceding vowel, and others where it's [ə] or [ɾ] or [ɹ]. These are phonetic and local details, whereas phonemes are much more general. It's appropriate for an international site like Wikipedia to use phonemes instead of allophones.
    – jlawler
    Jun 25, 2013 at 18:05
  • Rather than attributing Wikipedia's phonetic transcription to unwillingness, it usually comes down to people not understanding how phonemic vs phonetic transcription work. A word could have dozens of phonetic transcriptions across dialects and pronunciations. Phonemic transcriptions have fewer variants because one goal is to achieve convention. However people still mix the two for reasons like trying to bring a phonemic transcription closer to some local pronunciation. Wikipedia and Wiktionary tend to fall into this trap and end up with IPA different to what's in major dictionaries. Jun 25, 2013 at 23:17
  • Since phonemes turn out to be a "useful fiction" and linguistics is all about analysis the decision of which phonemes are used in any particular variety of English is subject to varying analyses. Then too is the choice of how to encode the chosen set of phonemes into a chosen set of IPA or other phonetic symbols. I've definitely seen print dictionaries that indicate syllabic l, m, n, and r - generally with a dot below the letter. But for me "world" does have a vowel (-; Jun 25, 2013 at 23:21
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    True, English's pluricentrism does cause problems. The difficulty with phonemic transcriptions, though, is that for English at least they'd likely be fairly far removed from the actual pronunciation (depending on the analysis and how much of an attempt is being made to be crossdialectically useful), and you as a reader would have to be consciously familiar with your dialect's allophonic rules in order to really understand how a word was supposed to sound. I wouldn't say I have a good solution to the problem, though.
    – Sjiveru
    Jun 26, 2013 at 1:15
  • @Sjiveru Hmm, In you last comment I think you're misconstruing how language-specific transcription systems work. On another note, one reason for not transcribing world with a syllabic /r/ is that it would be understood to be an unstressed nucleus/vowel with a short duration as if it replaced /ər /. Another would be that it contrasts with words like whorled, which could easily also be argued to have a syllabic /r/. Jan 5, 2019 at 0:51

Sometimes you have to take transcriptions in dictionaries with a grain of salt. When an American English dictionary gives /ɜr/ for bird, I think you can safely take that as equivalent to /ɝ/ (although see @jlawler's comment under @sjiveru's answer regarding phonemic specifications in broader, cross-dialectal arenas).

The job of a dictionary transcription is to serve as a guide to the pronunciation of the word, not to provide a phonological analysis, although in giving a phoneme-level transcription it is implicitly assuming one. Since different dictionaries use different phonemic schemes, the user has to be wary when interpreting a given dictionary's choice of symbols. If a dictionary gives /shərt/ for shirt, for example, the /ər/ sequence should not be interpreted as a sequence of /ə/ plus /r/ any more than /sh/ should be interpreted as /s/ plus /h/. More than likely the two-symbol string is being used to represent a single sound. Sometimes this can be confirmed by listening to the recorded pronunciation that often accompanies transcriptions in online dictionary entries. Indeed, if you downloaded one of these sound files and examined a spectrogram of it, you'd be hard-pressed to segment the vocalic portion of the word into two separate vowels.

Now, as for the distinction between [ɹ] and [ɝ]: From a phonologist's perspective, the distinction is not really one of pronunciation, but one of syllable structure. When this sound is used as an onset of a syllable, for example, it is treated as a consonant, and when it is used as a nucleus it is treated as a vowel. Conventionally the former is transcribed as [ɹ] and the latter as [ɝ] (or [ɚ] if it's unstressed). This can be viewed as parallel to the distinction between [j] and [i]. For some speakers there may be slight articulatory differences between the two, such as duration or degree of retroflection, but that is not the primary consideration in assigning them two different symbols. To make the relationship between the two more transparent, some use the syllabic diacritic under the [ɹ] when it functions as a nucleus: [ɹ̩].

  • I would say "with a grain of salt" is not the right expression. In community-driven efforts like Wiktionary and Wikipedia that's perhaps true. But in other sources such as print dictionaries and linguistics publications then what is needed is an understanding of how phonetic and phonemic transcription works, rather than skepticism. Jun 25, 2013 at 23:24
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    I wonder if other kinds of r-coloured/rhotacised/whatever (coronalised?) vowels besides [ɝ] and [ɚ] would be possible. My totally-not-based-on-anything conjectural analysis is that /ɚ/ is just /ə/ plus coronal features - is that even plausible, and could you have a rhotacised, say, /i/ in theory? (Not that it would be particularly useful linguistically.)
    – Sjiveru
    Jun 26, 2013 at 1:22
  • @hippietrail first of all, I maintain that what I said is true, since "dictionaries" includes online dictionaries (community-driven or not), which is why I said "sometimes". Jun 27, 2013 at 17:19
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    But what I meant in the context of this topic was that the job of a dictionary transcription is to serve as a guide to the pronunciation of the word, not to provide a phonological analysis, although in giving a phoneme-level transcription it is implicitly assuming one. I've edited my response to make this more clear (hopefully!). Jun 27, 2013 at 17:39
  • @musicallinguist: Well I agree that you should take anything in Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Urban Dictionary, etc with a large grain of salt. But I wouldn't tell people to take Webster's or Oxford with a grain of salt since they really do understand what they are doing. Jun 28, 2013 at 5:58

For me, these syllabic liquids occur in the following circumstances (Diaphonemes from Wikipedia):

  1. /ɜr/, as in bird, fern, fur, and worth
  2. /ǝr/, as in letter and perceive
  3. /ʌr/, as in hurry and borough
  4. /ʊl/, as in full
  5. /ʌl/, as in dull
  6. /ǝl/, as in bottle
  7. /ʉl/, as in beautiful

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