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How do I know when to keep r silent in pronunciation?

Examples:

Not silent

  • cry
  • free
  • friend

Silent

  • German
  • iron
  • learn
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3  
The letter r is not silent (in my pronunciation at least) of iron (very different to ion) or learn (very different to lean). – Matt E. Эллен May 16 '12 at 8:58
7  
In the former three, the r follows a consonant and precedes a vowel. In the latter three, it follows a vowel, and whether or not it is pronounced depends on the dialect, but in any case it changes the pronunciation of the vowel, so one can argue that in a way it's always present. To make a long story short, simply memorize every single word — just like native speakers do. There is no reliable way to know the pronunciation just by looking at the spelling. See "Hou tu pranownse Inglish", section "Vowels before r". – RegDwigнt May 16 '12 at 9:06
4  
In the US, it's more a matter of where you are in the country, as opposed to where the r is in the word. The closer you get to Boston, the more silent the r's become. – J.R. May 16 '12 at 9:08
    
@J.R. Most useful point. +1 for '... where you are ...' – Kris May 16 '12 at 9:40
2  
IF you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer. "The letter 'r'" makes no sound. Ever. It is written, not spoken. English spelling does not represent the sounds of English, and resonant phonemes like /r/ are inconsistently represented in spelling, and also vary a great deal in pronunciation from one person to another, and from one dialect to another. – John Lawler May 16 '12 at 13:34
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Yes. In so-called non-rhotic pronunciations of English (which includes what are perceived as 'standard' British pronunciations), a written 'r' does not actually represent an 'r' sound when it is syllable-final.

On the other hand, the case of "iron" is simply a rare exception.

share|improve this answer
    
Wicked good answer! After I read your response, I found this to be helpful, too. – J.R. May 16 '12 at 9:38
4  
Americans pronounce "iron" as "eye-urn" (ˈaɪərn). So it's not actually an exception to the syllable-final pronunciation rule for 'r'; it's a case where you can't tell that the 'r' is syllable-final from the spelling. – Peter Shor Mar 31 '13 at 16:50
    
I'm not convinced ‘syllable-final’ is the best way to describe the conditioning here. ‘Not pre-vocalic’ seems more precise to me, unless you consider syllable boundaries to shift in cases like “the bar was” vs. “the bar is”. (And I think you actually mean ‘in the syllable coda’: the r in learn, for example, is not syllable-final, but it is in the coda.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet yesterday

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