This quora answer by Kit di Pomi (and if you browse his other answers he uses a similar uvular transcription) claims that: [ʀ] isn’t used anywhere off-stage as far as I know, typically American rhotacism surfaces as [ɹ] the alveolar or prealveolar approximant, as a r-colored vowel, or out west can be a velar or uvular approximant [ʁ] with no apical involvement of the tongue, which is lax and has its apex resting at the base of the lower teeth, these two factors distinguish it from French or Hebrew [ʁ].

I find this claim ridiculous. Either I'm failiing to understand this answer or there's something else at play here.

  • 1
    the US rhotic is usually described as fairly retroflex, so the description of the apex resting at the base of the teeth seems unlikely. That said, /r/ was traditionally uvular in Northumbria in England (the so-called Northumbrian Burr), although it has pretty much been completely lost today, retained only by some old rural speakers in Northern Northumbria, so [ʀ~ʁ] is used off-stage
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:23
  • @Tristan I find it hard to believe that the US rhotic is more retroflex than bunched or alveolar. Every american I've asked so far have said that they only use the bunched r and I am yet to meet anybody who actually uses the retroflex variant
    – user32747
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:25
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    @Richard: I use both the bunched /r/ and the postalveolar /r/, depending on the consonants next to it. (So now, you've heard from an American who doesn't use only the bunched /r/.) Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 18:18
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    Seems completely unfamiliar to me as well – at least, I’ve never heard anyone from ‘out west’ pronouncing /r/ as a uvular or velar approximant. Also not sure what he means by the tongue’s laxness and location at the lower teeth “distinguish[ing] it from French or Hebrew [ʁ]”, both of which also, as far as I know, have a lax tongue with the apex resting at the lower teeth. The main difference would rather be (alleged US) approximant vs (French/Hebrew) fricative/trill. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 20:38
  • @PeterShor can you give some general rules (if any) on when you prefer one over the other? Or is it just arbitrary?
    – user32747
    Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 6:03

1 Answer 1


The linguistic part to this question that I can see is, what is the phonemic or phonetic quality of "r" in US English? The cites answer answer correctly challenges the erroneous transcription with /ʀ/, however attributing phonetic properties to phonemes is a tricky proposition (though people do it). There is no phonological fact suggesting the "r" is phonemically /ʀ/, and no phonetic fact suggesting that.

The standard most-phonetic IPA transcription of that sound would be [ɹ] (probably actually [ɹʷ], at a finer-grained level of detail). In lieu of compelling reasons for making the phoneme distinct from its allophonic realizations, "r" would therefore be phonemically /ɹ/ – if you want to adhere to the widely-adopted principle of using the nearest IPA letter. The statement that this "r" is velar or uvular is correct-ish, that "r" in US English is not equivalent to /ɹ/ found in a number of languages of Nigeria (I believe Yoruba has this feature), also I think Carribean English. The approximant of US English is a high back approximant, which given a theory of features would be taxonomically called "velar".

I would not trust speaker reports of what they do unless them come from John Esling (a well-qualified phonetician and expert in such matters, who is a native US-ish speaker (I don't know where he was born and raised, could be Canada). Perhaps there is some quantitative evidence in the literature that addresses the "retroflex" vs "bunched" distinction, but that seems irrelevant to the answer that you're asking about, since he makes no claim about that.

  • Where can read his works?
    – user32747
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:53
  • He meaning Esling? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Esling
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 15:57
  • Yes, John was at Michigan getting his MA when I joined the faculty there. A very good phonetician indeed.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 20:27

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