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In phonetics, rhotic consonants, or "R-like" sounds, are liquid consonants that are traditionally represented orthographically by symbols derived from the Greek letter rho, including ⟨R⟩, ⟨r⟩ in the Latin script and ⟨Р⟩, ⟨p⟩ in the Cyrillic script. They are transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet by upper- or lower-case variants of Roman ⟨R⟩, ⟨r⟩: ⟨r⟩, ⟨ɾ⟩, ⟨ɹ⟩, ⟨ɻ⟩, ⟨ʀ⟩, ⟨ʁ⟩, ⟨ɽ⟩, and ⟨ɺ⟩ as well as by the lower-case turned Roman ⟨a⟩ (the symbol for the near-open central vowel) combined with the "non-syllabic" diacritic, that is ⟨ɐ̯⟩.
This class of sounds is difficult to characterise phonetically; from a phonetic standpoint, there is no single articulatory correlate (manner or place) common to rhotic consonants. Rhotics have instead been found to carry out similar phonological functions or to have certain similar phonological features across different languages.
Being "R-like" is an elusive and ambiguous concept phonetically and the same sounds that function as rhotics in some systems may pattern with fricatives, semivowels or even stops in others. For example, the alveolar flap is a rhotic consonant in many languages, but in North American English, the alveolar tap is an allophone of the stop phoneme /t/, as in water. It is likely that rhotics are not a phonetically-natural class but a phonological class.
Some languages have rhotic and non-rhotic varieties, which differ in the incidence of rhotic consonants. In non-rhotic accents of English, /ɹ/ is not pronounced unless it is followed directly by a vowel.
The most typical rhotic sounds found in the world's languages are the following:
- Trill (popularly known as rolled r): The airstream is interrupted several times as one of the organs of speech (usually the tip of the tongue or the uvula) vibrates, closing and opening the air passage. If a trill is made with the tip of the tongue against the upper gum, it is called an apical (tongue-tip) alveolar trill; the IPA symbol for this sound is [r]. Most non-alveolar trills, such as the bilabial one, however, are not considered rhotic.
- Many languages, such as Bulgarian, Swedish, Norwegian, Frisian, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Dutch and most Occitan variants, use trilled rhotics. In the English-speaking world, the stereotyped Scottish rolled [r] is well known. The "stage pronunciation" of German specifies the alveolar trill for clarity. Rare kinds of trills include Czech ⟨ř⟩ [r̝] (fricative trill) and Welsh ⟨rh⟩ [r̥] (voiceless trill).
- The uvular trill is another kind of rhotic trill; see below for more.
- Tap or flap (these terms describe very similar articulations): Similar to a trill, but involving just one brief interruption of airflow. In many languages flaps are used as reduced variants of trills, especially in fast speech. However, in Spanish, for example, flaps and trills contrast, as in pero /ˈpeɾo/ ("but") versus perro /ˈpero/ ("dog"). Also flaps are used as basic rhotics in Japanese and Korean languages. In Australian English and most American dialects of English, taps do not function as rhotics but are realizations of intervocalic apical stops (/t/ and /d/, as in rider and butter). The IPA symbol for these sounds is [ɾ] (or substandard [ᴅ] for the tap, contrasted with the flap [ɾ]).
- Alveolar or retroflex approximant (as in most accents of English—with minute differences): The front part of the tongue approaches the upper gum, or the tongue-tip is curled back towards the roof of the mouth ("retroflexion"). No or little friction can be heard, and there is no momentary closure of the vocal tract. The IPA symbol for the alveolar approximant is [ɹ] and the symbol for the retroflex approximant is [ɻ]. There is a distinction between an unrounded retroflex approximant and a rounded variety that probably could have been found in Anglo-Saxon and even to this day in some[which?] dialects of English, where the orthographic key is r for the unrounded version and usually wr for the rounded version (these dialects will make a differentiation between right and write). Also used as a rhotic in some dialects of Armenian, Dutch, German, Brazilian Portuguese (depending on phonotactics).
- Uvular (popularly called guttural r): The back of the tongue approaches the soft palate or the uvula. The standard Rs in European Portuguese, French, German, Danish, and Modern Hebrew: 261 are variants of this rhotic. If fricative, the sound is often impressionistically described as harsh or grating. This includes the voiced uvular fricative, voiceless uvular fricative, and uvular trill. In northern England, there were accents that once employed a uvular R, which was called a "burr".
- developmental non-rhotic Rs: Many non-rhotic British speakers have a labialization to [ʋ] of their Rs, which is between idiosyncratic and dialectal (southern and southwestern England), and since it includes some RP speakers, somewhat prestigious. Apart from English, in all Brazilian Portuguese dialects the ⟨rr⟩ phoneme, or /ʁ/, may be actually realized as other, traditionally non-rhotic, fricatives (and most often is so), unless it occurs single between vowels, being so realized as a dental, alveolar, postalveolar or retroflex flap. In the syllable coda, it varies individually as a fricative, a flap or an approximant, though fricatives are ubiquitous in the Northern and Northeastern regions and all states of Southeastern Brazil but São Paulo and surrounding areas. The total inventory of /ʁ/ allophones is rather long, or up to [r ɻ̝̊ ç x ɣ χ ʁ ʀ ħ h ɦ], the latter eight being particularly common, while none of them except archaic [r], that contrasts with the flap in all positions, may occur alone in a given dialect. Few dialects, such as sulista and fluminense, give preference to voiced allophones; elsewhere, they are common only as coda, before voiced consonants. Additionally, some other languages and variants, such as Haitian Creole and Timorese Portuguese, use velar and glottal fricatives instead of traditional rhotics, too. In Vietnamese, depending on dialect, the rhotic can occur as [z], [ʐ] or [ɹ]. In modern Mandarin Chinese, the phoneme /ɻ~ʐ/, which is represented as ⟨r⟩ in Hanyu Pinyin, resembles the rhotics in other languages in realization, thus it can be considered a rhotic consonant.
Furthermore, there is also a non-syllabic open vowel [ɐ̯] (conventional transcription, the exact quality varies) that patterns as /r/ in some Germanic languages such as German, Danish and Luxembourgish. It occurs only in the syllable coda.
In broad transcription rhotics are usually symbolised as /r/ unless there are two or more types of rhotic in the same language; for example, most Australian Aboriginal languages, which contrast approximant [ɻ] and trill [r], use the symbols r and rr respectively. The IPA has a full set of different symbols which can be used whenever more phonetic precision is required: an r rotated 180° [ɹ] for the alveolar approximant, a small capital R [ʀ] for the uvular trill, and a flipped small capital R [ʁ] for the voiced uvular fricative or approximant.
The fact that the sounds conventionally classified as "rhotics" vary greatly in both place and manner in terms of articulation, and also in their acoustic characteristics, has led several linguists to investigate what, if anything, they have in common that justifies grouping them together. One suggestion that has been made is that each member of the class of rhotics shares certain properties with other members of the class, but not necessarily the same properties with all; in this case, rhotics have a "family resemblance" with each other rather than a strict set of shared properties. Another suggestion is that rhotics are defined by their behaviour on the sonority hierarchy, namely, that a rhotic is any sound that patterns as being more sonorous than a lateral consonant but less sonorous than a vowel. The potential for variation within the class of rhotics makes them a popular area for research in sociolinguistics.
This section needs expansion with: an introduction explaining what "variable rhoticity" means in terms that summarize the rationale for binding all of its subsections under it, clarifying what they have in common. You can help by adding to it.(May 2020)
English has rhotic and non-rhotic accents. Rhotic speakers pronounce a historical /r/ in all instances, while non-rhotic speakers only pronounce /r/ at the beginning of a syllable.
Colloquial Northern Dutch speech of the Randstad region is variably rhotic. In the syllable coda, the sequences /ɛr, ɑr, aːr, ɔr, oːr/ may be realized as [ɛ̝j, ɑj, aːj, ö̞j, öːj], which may close to or the same as the vowels or sequences /eː, ɑj, aːj, ɔj, oːj/, resulting in a variable merger. For instance, kerk 'church' and cake 'pound cake' may become homophonous as [kɛ̝jk] (the diphthongal allophone of /eː/ is usually transcribed [ei]), whereas maar 'but' can be homophonous with maai '(I) mow' as [maːj]. /ɔr/ and /oːr/ are usually somewhat distinct from /ɔj/ and /oːj/ as the former feature vowels that are more central (and /oːj/ features a diphthong [əuj] in certain dialects, such as Rotterdam Dutch).
After /ə/, /r/ may be dropped altogether, as in kilometer [ˈkilömeitə] 'kilometer'. This is commonly heard in The Hague. It is not necessarily restricted to the word-final position, as it can also happen in word-final clusters in words such as honderd [ˈɦɔndət] 'hundred'.
After /i/, /y/, /u/, /eː/ and /øː/, /r/ may be realized as a centering glide, as in mier [mïːə̯] 'ant', muur [mÿːə̯] 'wall', moer [müːə̯] 'queen bee', meer [mɪːə̯] 'lake' and deur [dʏːə̯] 'door'. As with /ɔ/ and /oː/, these vowels are more central (and also longer) than in other contexts. Furthermore, both /eː/ and /øː/ are raised in this context, so that meer becomes a near-homophone of mier, whereas deur becomes a quasi-rhyme of muur.
In citation forms, /r/ in the syllable coda is pronounced as a pharyngealized pre-velar bunched approximant [ɰ̟ˤ] (known in Dutch as the Gooise r) that is acoustically similar to [ɻ]: [kɛ̝ɰ̟ˤk, ˈkilömeitəɰ̟ˤ, mïə̯ɰ̟ˤ] etc. Other realizations (alveolar taps and voiced uvular fricatives) are also possible, depending on the region and individual speaker, so that mier may be also pronounced [mïə̯ɾ] or [mïə̯ʁ]. The pre-velar bunched approximant as well as the palatal approximant realization of /r/ described above are virtually unknown in southern varieties of Dutch. In the varieties where they do occur, they are restricted to the syllable coda. In other environments, /r/ is realized as [ɾ] or [ʁ].
Other Germanic languages
The rhotic consonant is vocalized in the syllable coda in other Germanic languages, notably German, Danish, western Norwegian and southern Swedish. That is not the same as non-rhoticity, as the vocalized realization is often distinct from the rest of the vowels and results in an opening diphthong such as [eːɐ̯] in the German word sehr [zeːɐ̯] 'very' or creation of new monophthongs, as in Danish tårne [ˈtsʰɒːnə] 'to pile up'. In English, non-rhoticity involves many phonemic mergers, such as the comma-letter merger or the caught-court merger.
In Asturian, word-final /r/ is always lost in infinitives before an enclitic pronoun, which is reflected in writing. For example, the infinitive form dar [dar] plus the third-person plural dative pronoun "-yos" da-yos [daˈʝos] ("give to them") or the accusative form "los" dalos [daˈlos] ("give them"). That happens also in Leonese in which the infinitive form is "dare" [daˈre], and both the /r/ and the vowel are dropped (da-yos, not *dáre-yos). However, most speakers also drop rhotics in the infinitive before a lateral consonant of a different word, but that is not shown in writing: dar los dos [daː los ðos] (give the two [things]). That does not occur in the middle of words: the name Carlos [karˈlos].
In some Catalan dialects, word-final /r/ is lost in coda position not only in suffixes of nouns and adjectives denoting the masculine singular and plural (written as -r, -rs) but also in the "-ar, -er and -ir" suffixes of infinitives: forner [furˈne] "(male) baker", forners [furˈnes], fer [ˈfe] "to do", lluir [ʎuˈi] "to shine, to look good". However, rhotics are "recovered" when followed by the feminine suffix -a [ə], and when infinitives have single or multiple enclitic pronouns (notice the two rhotics are neutralized in the coda, with a flap [ɾ] occurring between vowels, and a trill [r] elsewhere); e.g. fornera [furˈneɾə] "(female) baker", fer-lo [ˈferɫu] "to do it (masc.)", fer-ho [ˈfeɾu] "to do it/that/so", lluir-se [ʎuˈir.sə] "to excel, to show off".
Final ⟨r⟩ is generally not pronounced in words ending in ⟨-er⟩. The R in parce que ("because") is not pronounced in informal speech.
Indonesian and Malaysian Malay
In Indonesian, which is a form of Malay, the final /r/ is pronounced but varies in the different forms of Malay that are spoken on the Malay Peninsula. In Indonesia, it is usually a flap (/ɾ/), but for some Malaysian-+speakers, it is a retroflex approximant /ɻ/.
In some dialects of Brazilian Portuguese, /ʁ/ is unpronounced or aspirated. That occurs most frequently with verbs in the infinitive, which is always indicated by a word-final /ʁ/. In some states, however, it happens mostly with any /ʁ/ when preceding a consonant. The "Carioca" accent (from the city of Rio de Janeiro) is notable for this.
Among the Spanish dialects, Andalusian Spanish, Caribbean Spanish (descended from and still very similar to Andalusian and Canarian Spanish), Castúo (the Spanish dialect of Extremadura), Northern Colombian Spanish (in cities like Cartagena, Montería, San Andrés and Santa Marta, but not Barranquilla, which is mostly rhotic) and the Argentine dialect spoken in the Tucumán province may have an unpronounced word-final /r/, especially in infinitives, which mirrors the situation in some dialects of Brazilian Portuguese. However, in Antillean Caribbean forms, word-final [r] in infinitives and non-infinitives is often in free variation with word-final [l], which may be delateralized to [j], forming a falling diphthong with the preceding vowel (as in dar [daj] 'to give').
The native Thai rhotic is the alveolar trill. The English approximants /ɹ/ and /l/ are used interchangeably in Thai. That is, Thai-speakers generally replace an English-derived r (ร) with an l (ล), and when they hear an l (ล), they may write an r (ร).
In Istanbul Turkish, /r/ is always pronounced except in colloquial speech for the present continuous tense suffix yor as in gidiyor ('going') or yazıyordum ('I was writing') and bir ('one') when used as an adjective/quantifier (but not other numbers containing this word, such as on bir ('eleven')). In these cases, the preceding vowel is not lengthened. The unfavorability of dropping /r/ can be explained with minimal pairs, such as çaldı ('stole') versus çaldır (imperative 'ring').
In some parts of Turkey, like Kastamonu, the syllable-final /r/ is almost never pronounced: gidiya instead of gidiyor ("she/he is going") and gide instead of gider ("she/he goes"). In gide, the preceding e is lengthened and pronounced somewhat between e and a.
Northern Chinese accents, centered around Beijing, are well-known as having erhua which can be translated as "R-talk". This normally happens at ends of words, particularly ones that end in an -n/-ng sound. So a southern Chinese might say yī diǎn (一点) ("a little bit") but a Beijinger would say it more like [(j)i tʲɚ] which in Pinyin is sometimes rendered yī diǎnr to show if the word can be rhotacized. The final "R" sound is strongly pronounced, not unlike Irish or American accents.
Among the Turkic languages, Uyghur displays more or less the same feature, as syllable-final /r/ is dropped, and the preceding vowel is lengthened: Uyghurlar [ʔʊɪˈʁʊːlaː] 'Uyghurs'. The /r/ may, however, sometimes be pronounced in unusually "careful" or "pedantic" speech; in such cases, it is often mistakenly inserted after long vowels even when there is no phonemic /r/.
Similarly in Yaqui, an indigenous language of northern Mexico, intervocalic or syllable-final /r/ is often dropped with lengthening of the previous vowel: pariseo becomes [paːˈseo], sewaro becomes [sewajo].
Lacid, whose exonyms in various literature include Lashi, Lachik, Lechi, and Leqi, is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by the Lacid people. There are various reports of their population from 30,000 to 60,000 people. Most are in Myanmar, but there are also small groups in China and Thailand. Noftz (2017) reports finding an example of a rhotic alveolar fricative in Lacid while he was doing phonological research at Payap University, in Thailand, in 2015. He was not able to continue his research and expressed the need for further examination of the segment to verify his results. It is postulated that the segment is a remnant of the rhotic fricative in Proto-Tibeto-Burman.
The Shekaki accent of the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish is non-rhotic: the postvocalic flap "r" is not pronounced unlike the trill "R". When "r" is omitted, compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel takes place:
- sar ("cold") is pronounced /saː/
- torr ("net") is pronounced /tor/ (with a trilled r)
Shekaki retains morphological syllables, instead of phonological syllables, in non-rhotic pronunciation.
Syllable-final /r/ is lost in many varieties of Rif Berber and is lengthened before /a/ to [aː], and /i/ and /u/ become diphthongs like inEnglish or German. However, a distinct phoneme /ɾ/ from earlier /l/ exists and does not undergo the same development.
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