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What is the origin of the different pronunciation of words like park, yard, cartoon, margarine in American and British English?

In other words, why doesn’t British English generally pronounce the r in such words? Or vice-versa: why does American English generally pronounce the r in the same words?

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Just a note: you can't generalize about either one. I'm not familiar with all of the varieties of British English; but among American dialects, you have the New Englanders (particularly - and stereotypically - Bostonians), some New Yorkers, and some Southerners who also drop their "r"s in such words. –  Alex Jan 30 '11 at 7:11
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@Alex: As you probably suspected, there are indeed some British dialects that do pronounce the "r" :-) –  psmears Apr 17 '11 at 13:14
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3 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Broadly, English accents are divided into two categories, rhotic and non-rhotic. All English accents were originally rhotic, and the R sound was typically articulated as an alveolar trill, in contrast with the alveolar approximant of most contemporary dialects. Non-rhotic accents began developing in the Middle English period, and were commonplace by the arrival of modern English, gaining popularity in southern England during the 18th century.

Both the British Isles and the United States, as well as Australia and other areas where English is spoken, have regions of both rhotic and non-rhotic accents. As Alex mentions, notable non-rhotic United States accents include coastal New England, New York, and old-style Deep Southern; the so-called "continental" or trans-Atlantic accent, characteristic of upper-class America through much of the 20th century, was also distinctly non-rhotic. Rhotic British accents are to be found in the West Country, as well as much of Scotland and Ireland.

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haha. I think you got there first. –  gpr Jan 30 '11 at 8:11
    
@gpr: Wow. Our answers are otherwise remarkaby similar. Good show. –  Jon Purdy Jan 30 '11 at 8:13
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42 seconds apart. Any other number would be a bug in the universe. –  RegDwigнt Jan 30 '11 at 12:45
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The difference you're describing is between rhotic and non-rhotic accents. In the UK, rhotic accents have been declining since the 16th century, although they still persist in the West and Southwest.

English was already established in the North American colonies before the decline in rhoticity, which is why it's been preserved in the US and Canada. I think the exception of New England might be down to the fashion in the early 20th century of affecting a Mid-Atlantic (and British-style non-rhotic) accent.

North America was clearly colonised before the start of the decline in rhoticity, whereas Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand were colonised after and therefore have non-rhotic accents.

More detail on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotic_and_non-rhotic_accents

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In other words, why doesn't British English generally pronounce the r in such words?

This part is just wrong. First of all, there is not one "British English", spoken by all British people. Especially not in terms of pronunciation, which varies a lot between people with regional accents, those without and speakers of received pronunciation.

Also, it is not true to say that British people don't pronounce the letter r. There are regional accents that are rhotic and involve the r being pronounced strongly. Even in the non-rhotic accents, the r is still pronounced; just not strongly.

If it was not, that would change the pronunciation of words that contain it. Consider the examples given in the question: park, yard, cartoon, margarine. If these were pronounced without an r, they would be pak (the same as the word pack, as in pack a suitcase), yad (rhyming with the word bad), catoon (rhyming with the word cat), and magaine (with the "mag" part rhyming with the word badge and the second a pronounced as the a in the words cat and badge. The entire word would then be pronounced as maj-ah-een).

As a British person, I can tell you with certainty, that this is not the case. These words are definitely not pronounced like that. If anyone did so, they would immediately stand out as odd and different from the overwhelming majority of British people.

The main point here is that the letter r is still pronounced, just not always strongly. In non-rhotic speech, it is a soft and gentle sound. I can appreciate that this must difficult to notice and understand for people with strong, rhotic accents. Especially Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom have very strong, rhotic accents that involving pronouncing the letter r, harshly.

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I’m sorry, Tristan, but all the professional linguistic literature completely disagrees with you on this. It is quite natural, however, for untrained native speakers to imagine they are saying things they are not, because it is in their mind not their ear. Also, you really have to learn IPA, because none of your examples make any sense without it. A non-rhotic speaker will make homophones of many words that rhotic speakers will not, proving that the R is truly suppressed. You have still not identified which regional dialect/accent is yours, and this makes a great deal of difference. –  tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 23:28
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I believe the pronounciation in question is not "yad" (rhymes with bad), but "yawd" (rhymes with clawed). –  Ben Voigt Aug 2 '12 at 23:52
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Tristan, i think you are relying on your intuition, and it's unfortunately incorrect. It is certainly possible, even common, for competent native speakers to be mistaken about the facts of their own language. This is why linguists use tools like spectrograms to see what sounds are actually made and MRI to learn how the articulators are actually moving. Non-rhotic dialects don't use an /r/. Some may use a schwa or lengthen a vowel; but those are not /r/. –  Mark Beadles Aug 3 '12 at 0:51
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As I understand a non-rhotic dialect, in words like yard and the first syllable of margarine the R is not pronounced. It modifies the A from /æ/ to /ɑ/. If the R were pronounced it would be /ɑr/ or /ɑɹ/. The second R in margarine is always pronounced and is not an indicator of rhoticity. –  Andrew Leach Aug 3 '12 at 7:28
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Because, as I have said before, the R modifies the vowel sound. It's not actually pronounced (which is what IPA shows, and why you need to use it). –  Andrew Leach Aug 3 '12 at 12:05
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