Consonant /r/ phoneme

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The /r/ sound is a consonant in English, written with the letter <r>. It tends to pose challenges for ESL/EFL learners, particularly for those L1 has no similar sound. In older language textbooks, it is referred to as a liquid consonant. In modern terms, it is an approximant consonant, or in layperson's terms, a semi-vowel or semi-consonant. The correct symbol in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is /ɹ/, but for the sake of convenience, the symbol /r/ will be used here. In this article, slash marks like /r/ indicate a phoneme, while angled brackets like <r> indicate a letter or spelling.


1 Linguistic description

  • Place of articulation: The tongue tip approaches the alveolar ridge (the gum ridge above the upper teeth) or behind the alveolar gum ridge; thus, it is alveolar or post-alveolar.
  • Manner of articulation: It is classified as an approximant, that is, it is produced by narrowing the air passageway between the tongue tip and the alveolar region, but not enough to produce any friction in the air stream.
  • Phonation: It is voiced, i.e., the vocal cords (glottis) are in vibration.

In older texts, it was classified as a liquid, along with the /l/ sound. This, however, is a very outdated and imprecise term, as "liquid" was used for alveolar sounds that did not fit neatly into major categories like stops. The tongue tip creates a narrow passageway as it approaches the alveolar region, but the air simply flows through this passageway. For this reason, it is called an approximant, which falls between fricatives and vowels in terms of sonority. Thus, /r/ belongs to the same category as /w/ as in "watt" and the "y" sound as in "yes"[1].

The glottis vibrates and produces a fundamental frequency (F0), which provides the basic intonation of the sounds, particularly the vowels and voiced consonants. As the F0 bounces around the vocal cavity, other harmonic frequencies are produced, including the F1 and F2, which are responsible for vowel quality, and the F3 and F4. When the tongue partially obstructs the mouth near the alveolar area, the F3 and F4 sounds produced give the /r/ sound its distinctive sound, along with the air flowing through this slightly narrowed opening. After a vowel, the /r/ becomes particularly vowel-like, and almost forms a double vowel (diphthong) with the previous vowel, e.g.:

  • bar, bear, beer, boar, bur
  • car, care, core, cure

The distinction between /l/ and /r/ is in tongue contact – for /l/ the tongue touches the alveolar ridge or behind it, while for /r/, the tongue approaches but does not touch the alveolar region or palatal area. Among native English speakers, in first language learning, the /r/ and /w/ sounds are the last sounds that children master in learning English. In some regions or among some speakers, a common variant of /r/ occurs when the tongue bends further back to the pre-palatal area, as in some dialects in Texas and other southern US areas.

1.1 Cross-linguistic comparison

The English /r/ sound (actually, /ɹ/) is rare across the world's languages. One of the few significant languages where it occurs as a phoneme is Icelandic, though it occurs as a variant (allophone) of other <r> sounds in other languages like Thai. The <r> sounds of other languages are often one of the following.

  1. Many languages have trilled /r/ sounds as in Spanish (in proper IPA, the symbol /r/ is actually a trill <r>), or light alveolar tap sounds as in Scandinavian languages.
  2. In some languages like French, German and Dutch, the <r> sound is a trill made by vibrating the uvula in the back of the throat.
  3. Scandinavian languages have light alveolar tap <r> sounds.
  4. In Chinese, the <r> is either (1) a variant of a retroflexed <zh> sound at the beginning of a syllable, like the /ᴣ/ in pleasure with the tongue tip bent back more, with only slight friction; or it is a very retroflexed approximant-like sound after a vowel at the end of a syllable (imagine the pre-palatal Texas /r/ with the tongue bent even further back toward the palate). Examples include (1) rén "person" and (2) ér "child."
  5. Japanese and Korean have alveolar or post-alveolar tap <r> sounds. In Korean, the <r> sound only occurs in the middle of a word (medial position), and not at the beginning or end of a word.

1.2 Teaching /r/ production

Initially, teaching /r/ to learners whose first language has no analogous sound can be difficult. One could start with the Arrr sound of pirate talk as a starting point, then isolating the approximant sound from that. Chinese learners can start with final <r> sounds in Chinese and bending the tongue more toward the alveolar area. For advanced learners, certain English words still pose challenges; for example, words like "squirrel" are notoriously difficult for East Asian learners of English.


2 Practice activities and materials

Minimal pairs, which contrast a target sound with a sound that is a separate phoneme, are typical starting points for production and practice activities, particularly comparing /r/ with /l/ for East Asian students. The /r/ - /l/ contrast should be shown with minimal pair contrasts in syllable-initial, consonant cluster, medial, and final position. For more on types of minimal pairs activities to train listeners to discern and produce sounds, see the following.

  1. Pronunciation: Listening exercises
  2. Pronunciation: Production exercises
  3. Pronunciation: Controlled activities
  4. Pronunciation: Interactive activities

2.1 Basic practice minimal pairs

monosyllabic l-r multi-syllabic l-r various r-w
bled
clap
climb
cloud
flog
flute
gloom
lock
play
coal
feel
file
loo
tile
bread
crap
crime
crowd
frog
fruit
groom
rock
pray
core
fear
fire
rue
tire
aloe
believed
blackish
clouded
collective
glamor
implicated
liver
light-handed
playing
pleasant
locker
splaying
splinter
arrow
bereaved
brackish
crowded
corrective
grammar
imprecated
river
right-handed
praying
present
rocker
spraying
sprinter
array away
crack quack
crick quick
crier choir
rickets wickets
risky whiskey
rye why
treat tweet
unread unwed
wrinkle winkle


2.2 Minimal pair sentences

2.2.1 Answer the following questions

  1. Would you want your boy to be trained as a pilot or as a pirate?
  2. Are tourists in Mauritius known to be malicious?
  3. Would you prefer a life of glamor, or a life of grammar?
  4. Would you consider yourself right-handed? Would you consider yourself light-handed?
  5. Would you rather be playing or praying right now?
  6. Do you prefer clouded mountaintops, or crowded streets?
  7. Does the water near your place seem blackish or brackish?
  8. Would you prefer to sit by the river, or eat some liver?
  9. Would you like to eat liver by the river?


2.2.2 Who lives where? (minimal pair sentence activity)

Match these personal names with place names, creating questions and answers; e.g., “Does John Reese live in Reading? - No, John Reese lives in Leading / No, John Leece lives in Reading”. I believe these are from Celce-Murcia, Brinton & Goodwin (2010)[2].

personal names place names
John Leece - John Reese
Betty Lawson - Betty Rorson
Peter Lowe - Peter Roe
Mark Warne - Mark Vaughan
Paul Wayne - Paul Vane
Ann Whicker - Ann Vicker
Alison Ray - Alison Way
Les Right - Les White
Susan Wain - Susan Rayne
Loxwood - Rockswood
Lorton - Rawton
Lambsgate - Ramsgate
Vines Cross - Whines Cross
Vorden - Warden
Venby - Whenby
Ryton - Wyton
Ridcombe - Widcombe
Rateby - Waitby


2.3 Tongue twisters

  1. Round and round the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran.
  2. Three free throws.
  3. All roads lead to Rome.
  4. Richard’s wretched ratchet wrench.
  5. The rice grows near the river.
  6. A frugal rural ruler.
  7. Are our oars okay?
  8. He’s literally literary.
  9. Climbing crimes are lures for crowded clowns with crowns.
  10. Collecting the corrections is the role of the elderly.
  11. Critical cricket critics.
  12. Three free thugs set three thugs free.
  13. Freshly fried fresh flesh.
  14. I correctly recollect Rebecca MacGregor’s reckoning.
  15. Are Roland and Sally rallying here in their lorry?
  16. Dwayne Dwiddle drew a drawing of dreaded Dracula.
  17. Greta Gruber grabbed a group of green grapes.
  18. A leaky rear latch on the listing bark lifted right up and the water rushed in.
  19. Is there a pleasant peasant present?
  20. It’s the right light with the glimmer in the mirror.
  21. Jerry’s berry jelly really rankled his broiling belly.
  22. Laura and Larry rarely lull their rural roosters to sleep.
  23. Randy Rathborne wrapped a rather rare red rabbit.
  24. Ruby Rugby’s brother bought and brought her some rubber baby-buggy bumpers.
  25. Running rivers reach reckless rapids.
  26. The crow flew over the river with a lump of raw liver. The rat ran by the river with a lump of raw liver.
  27. There are free fleas for all the loyal royalty.
  28. Tie twine to three tree twigs.
  29. Trina Tweety tripped two twittering twins under a twiggy tree.
  30. Yellow arrows frilled with reefed leaves are rarely light.
  31. How much myrtle would a wood turtle hurdle if a wood turtle could hurdle myrtle? A wood turtle would hurdle as much myrtle as a wood turtle could hurdle if a wood turtle could hurdle myrtle.


3 Trivia other uses for the letter <r>

  • The Latin letter R was derived from the Greek letter rho (which looks like P). The early Romans added a tail to the "P," giving us our letter R.
  • R is the name of a well known free statistical package; see the R website.
  • Mathematicians use 'R' (an R in blackboard bold, displayed as ℝ in Unicode) for the set of all real numbers.
  • R is a symbol for the gas constant or ideal gas constant in chemistry and physics, as in the famous ideal gas law equation, PV = nRT.
  • The medical symbol for "prescription" is ℞ or Rx, from the Latin recipe (="take, take thou", an imperative form).


4 Consonant clusters with /r/

The following are near-minimal pairs that contrast consonant clusters with /r/ with simple consonants.

/r/ consonant clusters
/br/ raid

braid

rat

brat

rude

brood

rook

brook

rouse

browse

rack

brack

/pr/ ray

pray

rat

prat

rod

prod

rune

prune

Roxie

proxy

roost

Proust

/gr/ rid

grid

ripe

gripe

ram

gram

wrist

grist

rove

grove

rump

grump

/kr/ rack

crack

rain

crane

reed

creed

rhyme

crime

rose

crows

ram

cram

/dr/ roan

drone

rain

drain

red

dread

ram

dram

rouse

drowse

raw

draw

/tr/ rate

trait

ripe

tripe

ramp

tramp

rend

trend

rim

trim

rot

trot

/fr/ ride

fried

reek

freak

rate

freight

round

frowned

wrench

French

rap

frappe

/ʃr/ Rhine

shrine

rift

shrift

rub

shrub

rink

shrink

red

shred

/θr/ row

throw

rust

thrust

roan

throne

rive

thrive

race

Thrace

red

thread

/spr/ rain

sprain

right

sprite

rung

sprung

rue

sprue

rout

sprout

ring

spring

/skr/ ream

scream

rough

scruff

ram

scram

reach

screech

/str/ robe

strobe

rate

straight

ripe

strip

rove

strove

reek

streak

rum

strum


5 More minimal pairs

5.1 Minimal pairs for /l/ - /r/

5.1.1 Initial

initial
la rah

lace race

lacy racy

lack rack

lade raid

lag rag

lair rare

lake rake

lamb ram

lamp ramp

land rand

lane rain

lane reign

lank rank

lap rap

laser raiser

latch ratch

late rate

lather rather

latter ratter

laud roared

laughed raft

laughter rafter

lave rave

lavish ravish

law raw

law roar

lay ray

lays raise

laze raise

leach reach

lead read

leader reader

leading reading

leaden redden

leaf reef

leap reap

leer rear

legally regally

legion region

lend rend

lent rent

lender render

lens wrens

lentil rental

lest rest

let ret

level revel

liar wrier

Lib rib

lice rice

lick rick

lie rye

lie wry

lied ride

lies rise

lieu rue

life rife

lift rift

light right

light write

lighter writer

lightest rightist

light-handed right-handed

lightly rightly

like Reich

limb rim

limn rim

lime rhyme

line Rhine

lined rind

ling ring

link rink

list wrist

literally literary

lithe writhe

liver river

load road

loam roam

loan roan

loaves roves

lob rob

lobe robe

loch rock

lock rock

locker rocker

locket rocket

lode road

lodger Roger

lolly lorry

long wrong

loo rue

look rook

loom rheum

loon rune

loosed roost

loot root

lope rope

lore roar

lord roared

lose ruse

lot rot

loud rowed

lout rout

low roe / row

lowed road

lowed rode

lows rose

lower rower

loyal royal

loyalist royalist

loyalty royalty

lubber rubber

lubberly rubbery

luck ruck

luff rough

luff ruff

lug rug

luge rouge

lugger rugger

lump rump

lung rung

lush rush

lust rust

lusty rusty


5.1.2 Initial clusters

initial cluster
blacked bract

blacken bracken

blackish brackish

blade braid

blah bra

blanch branch

bland brand

blaze braise

blazon brazen

bled bread

bled bred

blew brew

blight bright

blighter brighter

blink brink

bloke broke

bloom broom

blouse brows

blouse browse

blue brew

blued brood

bluer brewer

blunt brunt

blush brush

blent Brent

blessed breast


clack crack

clam cram

clamor crammer

clamp cramp

clank crank

clap crap

clash crash

clause crores

clue crew

climb crime

clipped crypt

clique creak

cloak croak

clock crock

clone crone

close crows

cloud crowd

clown crown

clucks crux

clutch crutch

flagrant fragrant

flail frail

flame frame

flank frank

flawed fraud

flay fray

flays phrase

flea/flee free

fled Fred

flesh fresh

flier friar

flight fright

flock frock

floe fro

floes froze

flog frog

floored fraud

flow fro

flute fruit

fly fry

flan Fran

flank frank

glade grade

glamor grammar

gland grand

glass grass

glassy grassy

glaze grays

glaze graze

glazier grazier

glean green

glebe grebe

glimmer grimmer

gloat groat

gloom groom

glow grow

glue grew


plank prank

plate prate

play pray / prey

plays praise

pleach preach

pleasance presence

pleasant present

pleasantly pleasantry

plied pride

pliers priors

plod prod

plop prop

plough prow

ploughed proud

ply pry


splay spray

splint sprint

splinter sprinter

split sprit

stalling storing

starling starring

Stirling stirring


5.1.3 Medial

medial
airless heiress

alight aright

alive arrive

allay array

allies arise

allows arouse

ally awry

aloe arrow

applies apprise

beggarly beggary

belated berated

believe bereave

belly berry

belly bury

beneficially beneficiary

bestially bestiary


calling coring

celebration cerebration

collect correct

collection correction

collective corrective

collie corrie

complies comprise

dearly dearie

Eileen Irene

elect erect

fairly fairy

fallow farrow

finally finery

functionally functionary

gallantly gallantry

gently gentry

hallow harrow

Helen heron

hireling hiring

holler horror

implicate imprecate

implication imprecation

jelly jerry

labelling laboring

mallow marrow

mandarin mandolin

masterly mastery

Mauritius malicious

miller mirror

mislead misread

molasses morasses

odorous odourless

ovary overly

overclouded overcrowded

overload overrode

overplays overpraise

palate parrot

palling poring

palling pouring

pally parry

palace Paris

penitentially penitentiary

pilot pirate

queerly query

Rosalie rosary

savagely savagery

secondly secondary

supplies surprise

sully Surrey

tally tarry

teller terror

telly Terry

towelling towering

usually usury

walling warring

whirling whirring


5.1.4 Final

final
all are

bail bear

bill beer

call car

coal core

dial dire

dill deer

feel fear

file fire

final finer

foal foar

foal four

goal gore

hole hoar

mile mire

mole more

owl hour

pall par

pull poor

stole store


tile tire

wall war

we’ll we’re

well were


5.2 Minimal pairs for /r/ - /w/

5.2.1 Initial

Note: The spelling combination <wr> as in "wreck" represents a distinction not followed in modern English; <wr> is pronounced as /r/. Also, the spelling <wh> as in "what" represents a voiceless /h/ sound that has disappeared from most varieties of English (only in some UK and New England dialects); generally, <wh> is pronounced as /w/.

initial
raced waist

raced waste

rack whack

racks wax

rag wag

rage wage

raid wade

raider wader

rail wail

rail whale

rails Wales

rain wane

raise ways

rake wake

rank wank (vulgar)

rare ware

rare wear

rarer wearer

rate wait

rating waiting

rate weight

rated weighted

rave waive

raver waiver

rave wave

raved waved

raver waver

ray way / weigh

re we

re wee

read weed

read wed

Reading wedding

reading weeding

real wheel

rear Wear

reared weird

rears weirs

reed weed

reedy weedy

reeled weald

reel wheel

reeve we've

reeves weaves

reft weft

reign wane

reigned waned

reigning waning

reign wain

rein wane

rein wain

rend wend

rent went

rest west

ret wet

Rhine whine

Rhine wine

Rhyl will

rich which

rich witch

riches witches

Rick Wick

rickets wickets

ride wide

rider wider

rife wife

riff whiff

rig Whig

rig wig

rigging wigging

right white

righting whiting

rightist whitest

rile while

rill will

rim whim

rind whined

rind wind

ringer winger

rink wink

rinse wince

ripcord whipcord

rip whip

ripe wipe

riper wiper

rise Y's

riser wiser

risk whisk

risky whiskey

rite white

rive wive

road woad

roar war

roaring warring

roared ward

rod wad

roe whoa

roe woe

rolled wold

Ron wan

roof woof

room womb

rose woes

rot watt

round wound

rouse wows

rove wove

row woe

row wow

rowed woad


rude wooed

rue woo

run one

run won

ruse woos

Ryde wide

rye why

rye Y

wrangle wangle

wreak weak

wreak week

wrench wench

wren wen

wren when

wrier wire

wriggle wiggle

wrinkle winkle

writ wit

write white

writer whiter

Writtle Wythall

wrought wart

wryly wily


5.2.2 Initial r-clusters

initial r- clusters
crack quack

crake quake

crest quest

crick quick

crier choir

croft quaffed

crypt quipped

scrawl squall

screes squeeze

train twain

treat tweet

tree twee

treed tweed

trice twice

trill twill

tryst twist

5.2.3 Medial

medial
array away overate overweight

overrate overweight

overrated overweighted

underrate underweight

unread unwed


6 See also

  1. In proper IPA, /y/ is a rounded vowel, and /j/ is the English y-sound as in "yes." IPA was influenced by European languages, where often the letter <j> is pronounced like English <y>.
  2. Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M. & Goodwin, J. M. (2010). Teaching pronunciation. Cambridge Univ. Press.

6.1 Other pages

Portal:Phonology