Consonant /r/ phoneme
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
- 2 Practice activities and materials
- 3 Trivia other uses for the letter <r>
- 4 Consonant clusters with /r/
- 5 More minimal pairs
- 6 See also
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 This, however, is a very outdated and imprecise term, as "liquid" was used for alveolar sounds that did not fit neatly into major categories like stops.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".
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Scandinavian languages have light alveolar tap <r> sounds.
- 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."
- 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.
- Pronunciation: Listening exercises
- Pronunciation: Production exercises
- Pronunciation: Controlled activities
- Pronunciation: Interactive activities
2.1 Basic practice minimal pairs
|monosyllabic l-r||multi-syllabic l-r||various r-w|
2.2 Minimal pair sentences
2.2.1 Answer the following questions
- Would you want your boy to be trained as a pilot or as a pirate?
- Are tourists in Mauritius known to be malicious?
- Would you prefer a life of glamor, or a life of grammar?
- Would you consider yourself right-handed? Would you consider yourself light-handed?
- Would you rather be playing or praying right now?
- Do you prefer clouded mountaintops, or crowded streets?
- Does the water near your place seem blackish or brackish?
- Would you prefer to sit by the river, or eat some liver?
- 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).
|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
- Round and round the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran.
- Three free throws.
- All roads lead to Rome.
- Richard’s wretched ratchet wrench.
- The rice grows near the river.
- A frugal rural ruler.
- Are our oars okay?
- He’s literally literary.
- Climbing crimes are lures for crowded clowns with crowns.
- Collecting the corrections is the role of the elderly.
- Critical cricket critics.
- Three free thugs set three thugs free.
- Freshly fried fresh flesh.
- I correctly recollect Rebecca MacGregor’s reckoning.
- Are Roland and Sally rallying here in their lorry?
- Dwayne Dwiddle drew a drawing of dreaded Dracula.
- Greta Gruber grabbed a group of green grapes.
- A leaky rear latch on the listing bark lifted right up and the water rushed in.
- Is there a pleasant peasant present?
- It’s the right light with the glimmer in the mirror.
- Jerry’s berry jelly really rankled his broiling belly.
- Laura and Larry rarely lull their rural roosters to sleep.
- Randy Rathborne wrapped a rather rare red rabbit.
- Ruby Rugby’s brother bought and brought her some rubber baby-buggy bumpers.
- Running rivers reach reckless rapids.
- The crow flew over the river with a lump of raw liver. The rat ran by the river with a lump of raw liver.
- There are free fleas for all the loyal royalty.
- Tie twine to three tree twigs.
- Trina Tweety tripped two twittering twins under a twiggy tree.
- Yellow arrows frilled with reefed leaves are rarely light.
- 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|
5 More minimal pairs
5.1 Minimal pairs for /l/ - /r/
| la rah
| leach reach
| liar wrier
| load road
| low roe / row
5.1.2 Initial clusters
| blacked bract
| clack crack
| flagrant fragrant
| glade grade
| plank prank
play pray / prey
| airless heiress
| calling coring
| fairly fairy
| mallow marrow
| palate parrot
| all are
| dial dire
| foal foar
| mole more
| tile tire
5.2 Minimal pairs for /r/ - /w/
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/.
| raced waist
rank wank (vulgar)
ray way / weigh
| re we
| Rhine whine
| road woad
| wrangle wangle
5.2.2 Initial r-clusters
|initial r- clusters|
| crack quack
| scrawl squall
| train twain
|array away|| overate overweight
| underrate underweight
6 See also
- 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>.
- Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M. & Goodwin, J. M. (2010). Teaching pronunciation. Cambridge Univ. Press.