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I'm wondering how the rhotic consonant was pronounced by the ancient Anglo-Saxons. Was it pronounced as an alveolar like Modern English or more like the trill Scots use in certain words? Were there any differences in its pronunciation by speakers of the different dialects of Old English, as far as we can tell a thousand years later. Does Old Norse contain the same rhotic?

In particular, I'd like to know how to properly pronounce the name Ælfric. It seems like if the 'r' is pronounced the same way as today, the name should be pronounced just like someone trying to pronounce Alfric (as in Alf (the puppet) - Rick). So let me know if any of the other letters have different sounds but the limited (layman) resources I've seen tend to say that that is how those letters are pronounced.

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    In Ælfric, it was probly a tap [ɾ]. It coulda been a trill [r̃], but they get reduced in clusters for the most part. No reason to believe it was semivocalic [ɹ] as in American rhotic /r/. – jlawler Aug 2 '14 at 2:42
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    and the final 'c' was surely palatalised to /ʧ/ or at least to /ɕ/. – Colin Fine Aug 2 '14 at 23:42
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    The final 'c' was most probably not palatalised as there was no palatalising environment – Darkgamma Aug 11 '14 at 9:58
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Yes, Old English /r/ was probably the same as the Old Norse /r/. As to its exact pronunciation, we can't really know but we're pretty sure it was something like a trilled [r] or tapped [ɾ]. We don't really know the exact sound in Old Norse either but we're almost certain it was a trilled [r] as that's the most common initial reflex of the sound in all Scandinavian languages, as well as the intervocalic, preconsonantal, postconsonantal and final reflex of the sound in Icelandic.

Furthermore, the vowels in Ælfric weren't reduced like in modern English: the /i/ in Ælfric was more like English < ee > (phonemically /i:/).

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    Broadly speaking, I agree. I think your answer could be further improved, if you added articulatory labels (as jlawler did in his comment above) in order to avoid ambiguity for readers who lack knowledge of the subtle differences between different IPA characters for rhotics. – robert Aug 11 '14 at 13:33
  • Good idea! I edited the answer to include those labels – Darkgamma Aug 12 '14 at 0:30
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It was definitely an alveolar trill [r] (or flap [ɾ]) at the syllable onset, as in, in prevocalic positions.

However, in non-prevocalic positions (in positions where a non-rhotic speaker would elide /r/ today), it was probably an alveolar approximant [ɹ], like in Modern English.

We see this complementary distribution play out with /l/ as well - a clear [l] before vowels, a dark [ł] when there's no vowel following. This happens in Modern English as well.

This complementary distribution for /r/ was the norm not just in Old English, but English all accross till around ~1700. According to some people on reddit who once scolded me for not having "known" this before, not just in Old English, but also in Old Norse, and Proto-Germanic as well, /r/ was a complementary distribution between flap [ɾ] and approximant [ɹ].

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  • So you're postulating that the /r/ stayed constant in English for 1200 years, and then suddenly changed—becoming one sound in America, another in Southern England, and a third in Scotland. This just doesn't sound right to me. I think we can trace what /r/ sounded like as far back as Late Middle English, but I'm not sure we know anything about Old English. See this answer on english.stackexchange. – Peter Shor May 10 '19 at 22:04

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