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My 5 yr old daughter was given a task by her teacher to "find as many things as she can that have the sound r" with examples of rabbit, barrow, and ruler (all r's were underlined in the 3 words).

She was criticised by the teacher for answering with the word "heart", because "it's the sound r not the way the word is spelled". This bugs me because I'm not 100% sure whether it's correct!

We are in New Zealand, and I have to admit we generally pronounce words like heart and harder as haat and haada. If we were to use (reasonably) strict UK English, would the r be carefully pronounced or can it be essentially silent?

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I think it is disappointing that the teacher would just announce that saying there is an "r" sound in "heart" is wrong. Even a 5-year-old could understand a more nuanced explanation like "some people do say it with an 'r' sound but the way we are learning to speak is without an 'r' sound". But honestly, I think if you have a mixed rhotic/non-rhotic group of children, you should probably just let differences like this slide rather than criticize rhotic speakers and make them feel inferior for their different way of speaking. –  nohat Mar 7 '12 at 17:43
After some discussion about this amongst friends, we realised that some NZers from the South Island do pronounce the r. It's well known that many South Islanders roll their r's, but we had never noticed the difference between it being silent or not! –  Highly Irregular Mar 26 '12 at 18:01
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

There is no /r/ sound in ‘heart’. It is pronounced /hɑːt/.

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Then I suppose the same would apply to "barley", and "bar", but how about "or", "normal" and the second r in "ruler"? Thanks! I wish I could read pronunciation syntax though! –  Highly Irregular Mar 7 '12 at 8:26
@Highly Irregular: In one model of British pronunciation, there is no /r/ sound in ‘barley’, ‘normal’, ‘or’ or in the second syllable of ‘ruler’. I say ‘in one model’, because there is regional and social variation in pronunciation in Britain as elsewhere. The point is that spelling is no guide to pronunciation. The representation of the way words are pronounced is not ‘syntax’. The symbols most widely used are those of the International Phonetic Alphabet. There’s a good introduction here: bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/pron/sounds. –  Barrie England Mar 7 '12 at 8:45
The final r is however pronounced when followed by a word beginning with a vowel, e.g. "bar of gold". But I'm sure that's the subject of another topic... –  DavidR Mar 7 '12 at 10:09
@DavidR: True. It's also pronounced where it doesn't appear in writing, as in 'law(r) and order'. The feature is known as 'liaison'. –  Barrie England Mar 7 '12 at 10:30
I speak UK English (with a Scottish accent) and I can assure you that the /r/ is pronounced. –  Graham Borland Mar 26 '12 at 15:01
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In Received Pronunciation, Standard* British English and most New Zealand accents, /r/ is only pronounced when it precedes a vowel sound, so the “r” in “heart” is not pronounced. But in Standard* American English and in many UK regional accents the /r/ is pronounced. That’s why we include it in the spelling.

When the /r/ is pronounced it is known as a rhotic r, and accents that include it are called rhotic accents. Standard* British English has a non-rhotic accent.

This is a slight over-simplification. For all the gory details, consult the standard repository of all knowledge.

*By “standard” I mean the kind that is taught to non-native speakers.

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Standard English is normally regarded as a dialect rather than an accent, and as the only dialect that can be spoken with any accent. –  Barrie England Mar 7 '12 at 16:37
Well ... put it this way. When I teach British English I have a "standard" model of pronunciation in mind. I drop the rhotic /r/, I keep /ʌ/, /ʊ/ and /ə/ distinct, and so on. It's similar to RP, but with out that plummy, cut glass ring to it. What should I call it? –  Pitarou Mar 7 '12 at 23:23
Ah! I just noticed that I wrote "Standard BrE is a non-rhotic accent." amended "is" --> "has". Does that answer your objection? –  Pitarou Mar 7 '12 at 23:26
I've said elsewhere that there is no satisfactory single word to describe an accent that is not marked for the social or regional origin of it speakers, but to call it 'standard' risks confusion with Standard English, a variety of the language distiguished by vocabulary and grammar, but not by the way it's pronounced. –  Barrie England Mar 8 '12 at 7:27
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Notice that when pronouncing, rabbit, barrow or ruler the lips are pushed outward forming a small "oh" shape, while when pronouncing heart the lips to do not move like while the tongue is pushed up against the inside face (lingual) of the upper teeth. Try pronouncing heart with the lips out forming an "oh" and see if that feels natural-- it doesn't. They are both 'r' sounds but not the same 'r' sounds.

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This is only true in certain dialects, and I believe the OP was asking about British Received Pronunciation, where there's no 'r' sound in 'heart'. –  Peter Shor Mar 7 '12 at 12:04
Are you describing BrE or AmE or some other variety? The phenomenon of the 'small oh shape' is interesting; I'd never heard of word-initial-r described that way (it seems similar to rounding) but on reflection it does seem to occur. –  Mitch Mar 7 '12 at 14:16
I don't think the /r/ sounds itself has anything to do with the lips' shape. The lips make that shape in those words because a vowel is following. In UK English, the following vowel is why the /r/ sounds is pronounced, but in American English, the /r/ in heart is heard regardless of the lips' shape. –  NickC Mar 7 '12 at 16:52
The pursed-lips 'r' is described in IPA as [ɹʷ], and apparently many Americans use it instead of [ɹ] when the 'r' is in initial position. –  Peter Shor Mar 9 '12 at 15:29
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