I'm wondering about subtle differences in /r/ sounds across varieties of English.

By subtle I mean I want to ignore the obvious large differences such as the trilled "r" in Scottish English and the various rhotacised vowels in American and Canadian English.

I'm also not asking about tapped or flapped "t" or "d" sounds which could be characterized as kinds of "r" sounds.

I want to know about characteristic differences, if they exist, between the "r" sounds in English varieties at the phonetic and phonological level. I notice that different dictionaries which use IPA choose different symbols for the "r" phoneme, but this could be for reasons related more to typography than the actual sounds.

Are there differences which would influence the choice of IPA symbols or diacritics in either phonetic or phonemic transcription? Are there differences too minor to show in transcriptions but still analysable?

  • 1
    So far I'm surprised at how much variety there is just in the UK, but I'd really like to hear whether there are any differences between the "r" among other Englishes too. Nov 13, 2014 at 14:36

3 Answers 3


I'll limit a few examples to the varieties of English found in the UK here.

Northumbria There's a phenomenon known as the Northumbrian Burr in Northumbria in the North of England wereby (older) spreakers "typically pronounced as a voiced uvular fricative, often with accompanying lip-rounding ([ʁ(ʷ)])". The Survey of English Dialects 1950-61 even states that this is not only found in the syllable onset, but also maintained in the coda position (with any occurrence of /r/ being rare in British Englishes, other than Scottish varieties, South East, South West and part of Lancashire - e.g. Blackburn, Burnley).

South Wales In my part of South Wales, itis not uncommon to hear older (and indeed younger), rural speakers pronounce /r/ as an uvular trill in both Welsh and English. I believe this is more common in the varieties of English spoken by bilingual (Welsh and English) speakers. As a small note, it should be worth mentioning that this is not something common in Welsh and that it would not be thought of as "standard". I know of older males who have this feature, but also younger speakers (my mother being of them) and even people I went to school with, now in their 20s.

These are just two examples within the UK that I know of, but there are plenty of other nuances.


Cruttenden notes "There are more phonetic variations of the /r/ phoneme than of any other English consonants." (Gimson's Pronunciation of English, 2001.207)

Among the variations in British English he notes are:

[ɾ] alveolar tap - in RP and Liverpool and Newcastle dialects

[ɹ] post-alveolar approximant - in RP and some Scottish dialects

[ʋ] labiodental approximant - in RP

[r] lingual trill - in RP and some Scottish varieties

[ʀ] uvular trill - extreme north-East of England and for some Scottish speakers

[ʁ] uvular fricative - extreme north-East of England and for some Scottish speakers ʋ


Between them, Tunny and Danger Fourpence have nicely covered much of Great Britain north of London.

Southwest England The Westcountry dialect has the stereotypical retroflex "pirate" R, as demonstrated by Sam in the Lord Of The Rings films (though frankly his accent makes me cringe and sounds to me more like a bad attempt at Irish). Westcountry is, unusually for a dialect in England, rhotic.


Estuary English The stereotypical Cockney accent, and the related Estuary accent which expanded over southeastern England around the turn of the millennium (although now giving ground to Multicultural London English whose rhoticity I'm not familiar with), often realise /r/ as something more like [ʋ]


That said, although I've never seen it discussed, to me it sounds pretty clear that most southern English accents pronounce /r/ as [ʋ] simultaneous with an alveolar approximant. Failure to articulate the alveolar part produces something recognisable as a rhotacism. Failure to articulate the labiodental part produces something that sounds affected and cod-Shakespearean.

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