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I grew up speaking American English (San Diego to be specific). When I hear someone who speaks British English say a word that ends in [ə], like banana, I hear a weak but distinct 'r' sound attached to the end of the word. I have heard this from people from both London and Manchester, and friends of mine from other parts of the US also say they can hear it.

What causes that sound? Which way is the correct way to pronounce it?

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In some English accents you'll hear a very pronounced R in a phrase such as "I'll have a banana and a mango." –  JAM May 31 '12 at 17:04
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You are likely to hear that R sound if the following word begins with a vowel. –  GEdgar May 31 '12 at 18:09
    
The context is Vowel + Vowel. After front vowels, you hear a yod (y sound). After back vowels, you hear a wyn sound (w sound). After central vowels, what you hear varies on the dialect: r sound in non-rhotic accents; glottal stop in rhotic accents. As GEdgar noted, it happens before another vowel. –  RainDoctor May 31 '12 at 19:07
    
You'll find cases like this in some places in the Northeast United States, too, particularly in areas of Minnesota. –  Jason C Feb 21 at 18:03

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted
  • "What causes that sound?" - one could just as well ask why the American English speakers -don't- pronounce it. A reasonable response would be that it's not spelled that way, but to counter that, there's all sorts of pronunciations in English that "aren't spelled that way".

But to answer directly, the standard dialect of British English is non-rhotic meaning that they don't pronounce 'r's at the ends of words. Except interestingly you've found where they do pronounce them in places not expected. Since a word-final 'r' is preceded by a vowel, non-rhotic speakers will tend to pronounce vowel final words with a coloring of an 'r' because that's what the 'r' final words sound like (a vowel with 'r'-coloring).

Relatedly, a non-rhotic pronunciation almost always retains some vestige of the 'r', and it comes back in some circumstances, especially if the following word starts with a vowel. The classic Boston accent, parodied by 'I parked the car in Harvard yard', pronounces 'correctly' (see below for explanation) it as

'I pAHked the cAH rin HAHvAHd yAHd'

where the 'r' of 'car' -is- pronounced -in this context (but not usually). This is the way the accent says it. If you, as a non-Bostoner, say it without the 'r' after car, you won't be saying it like someone with a Boston accent does in real life.

  • "Which way is the correct way to pronounce it?" - 'correct' is what people normally use but it's just not appropriate here It's really "What is correct -in the particular language community-?" or even better "Which way do they almost always do it?". People follow rules, but they're not necessarily he ones you do, and which set is considered correct is more about sociological differences.
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Is dialect really the best word in your “standard dialect of British English is non-rhotic”? Isn’t RP more of an accent, not a dialect per se? Or are you speaking more broadly here? –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 0:31
    
@tchrist: dialect, variety, accent, whatever. The recognizable -thing- (grammar, vocab, phonology) that most people recognize as standard BrE. If the majority of the difference is phonological (and that is what we're discussing here), and that is called an accent, then that's what it is. So yes, I was being broad. –  Mitch Jun 2 '12 at 2:01
    
Thanks for the clear explanation of the phenomenon! –  just.another.programmer Jun 3 '12 at 11:50

The reason I think is that the British tend to bend/lift their tongue upwards when they say words that end with a short 'A' sound or 'Schwa'.When they say an 'R' they don't actually touch the upper part of the mouth(Alveolar ridge) with their tongue-tip but move close towards it producing the short Schwa sound.So when they have to say something like 'India (r) and China ,they inevitably say an 'r' there.Elsewhere they drop it as in 'rive(r)'.

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I'm not certain, but you may be hearing Intrusive R, where R sounds are inserted at the ends of words ending in certain vowels if the following word also starts with a vowel.

Its "correctness" in the context of non-rhotic accents is debatable, but it is certainly not how anyone with a rhotic accent speaks, such as someone from San Diego.

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'What causes that sound?' A different accent. 'Which way is the correct way to pronounce it?' There isn't one.

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Is there something specific in the accent that would cause it? I know native British English speakers are able to differentiate between a word that ends in [ə] and one that ends in [r], but my American friends and I often cannot (especially if it's a word we do not already know). –  just.another.programmer May 31 '12 at 16:59
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The process known as liaison can introduce an 'r' sound between two words when one ends with a vowel and the other begins with a vowel. So, 'banana ice cream' may be pronounced as if it were 'banana rice cream'. –  Barrie England May 31 '12 at 18:08
    
I don't believe even British speakers can tell the difference between (say) mynah and miner, when pronounced in an RP accent. They have the same phonemes in RP. –  Peter Shor May 31 '12 at 22:29
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@Barrie Just curious, are these homophonic pairs for you (liaison notwithstanding): cheater/cheetah, cochlear/cochlea, coder/coda, cupola/cupolar, curricula/curricular, doper/dopa, lunar/luna, manner/manna, pander/panda, peninsular/peninsula, schemer/schema, stellar/Stella, topper/tapa, tuber/tuba, uvular/uvula, and maybe even met her/meta when dropping the h in casual speech with an unstressed pronoun. Or might the unsaid/latent r sometimes cause a lengthening of the vowel, impeding its complete reduction? Even if not, I can’t imagine anyone ever confusing any of those contextually. –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 0:28
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@tchrist: When pronounced in isolation, certainly. –  Barrie England Jun 2 '12 at 5:48

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