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While I usually see phonemes like /ər/ and /ɜr/ described as phonetically corresponding to r-colored vowels, I've occasionally seen them referred to as syllabic consonants, e.g., [ɹ], rather than, say, [ɚ].

It's been a while since undergrad linguistics (and my apologizes if this is embarrassingly remedial), but I can't recall ever discussing these phonemes in terms of syllabic consonants.

Are there practical distinctions between considering these syllabic consonants rather than r-colored vowels?

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The main practical consideration is how many things you have to add to your theoretical toolbox if you talk in terms of "coloring" versus being "syllabic". Suppose that you only had a single anomalous vowel-like thing to deal with, [ɚ]. That would be a bit suspicious, compared to other kinds of vowels, where you have multiple "close" vowels, and "front" vowel, and "unrounded vowels". The IPA provides an "r-colored" diacritic that can be applied to any vowel – that is, any combination of other vowel properties, plus r-coloring, which doubles the possibilities. The concept of "r-coloring" sort-of predicts a limited set of modifications to other sounds (the product of "vowel" and "r-colored").

The notion of a "syllabic" segment predicts different kinds is segments – you can have syllabic /l/, syllabic /n/, syllabic /m/, syllabic /r/, and so on. Now comparing the approaches, the question is, what kinds of "syllabic" consonants do we find, or what kind of "colored" vowels do we find. For example, are there "l-colored vowels", and "n-colored vowels" as distinct from "m-colored vowels"?

Surveying the phonetic possibilities of languages, we do encounter a number of syllabic consonants, usually limited to sonorants but claims have been advanced in favor of syllabic obstruents (in some dialects of Tamazight, for example). It seems clear that "syllabic" is an unavoidable phonetic concept, and it is recognized in the IPA.

The simplest theory would therefore be one that just had "syllabic", and got rid of "r-colored" as a superfluous concept. However, the notion of a syllabic consonant implies a single modified of the consonant, whereas "r-colored" implies a range of distinct things – in principle, any vowel – combined with a general property of r-coloring. Do languages then actually have general "r-coloring" as an orthogonal vowel property, like breathiness of nasalization? And, equally important, is that property phonetically a property of the vowel, or is it a separate segment for example a coda /r/ that partially overlaps the preceding vowel in pronunciation.

Badaga is the one case that seems to have clearly had retroflexion (r-coloring) as a freely-combinable sub-distinction on vowels (in fact, there were two degrees of it). However, this feature of the language may have died out – the state of Badaga linguistic description is rather elementary. I will mention a purported case, certain dialects of Mandarin which have a "retroflex suffix", but I have not seen any evidence that there are multiple steady-state retroflex vowels rather that distinct vowels followed by coda /ɹ/.

As for English specifically, it doesn't really matter in the least what terminology you use.

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  • Thank you for the wonder response! This was very helpful.
    – Dan
    Jan 19, 2022 at 17:04

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