Wanting to be more Californian and trying to correct my accent, I'm looking at the sound for mother, in the North America column. What is the difference between IPA symbols for ɚ, ɹ, and ɝ. (ɝ is not on the page but the difference between ɚ and ɝ is what I was looking for in the first place.) I cannot really hear a difference between Standard Canadian and Standard American, for example.

  • You will not, in general, find any difference in rhotics between standard American and Canadian dialects. However, America does have several arrhotic accents. The word mother will not sound different in most cases, but if you hit an arrhotic accent it may.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 8:47
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    I'm American, and in my dialect, and I believe in most American dialects, the only difference between ɚ and ɝ is that ɚ is not stressed. Using two different IPA symbols for stressed and unstressed versions of the same vowel is probably an abuse of IPA notation, but there's enough tradition behind it that it isn't going to change. Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 10:23
  • @PeterShor Since as I understand it IPA is used to describe all phoenomes irregardless of languages, I would assume if there are two symbols for it, it should sound different. So, you're saying that when it comes to English, it's an misuse of at least one of the IPA symbols, and when used to describe another language these two symbols in fact sounds different (and the difference is other than stressing)?
    – huggie
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 3:11
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    @huggie it's just how they do it. Sometimes it's possible to have two symbols for the same sound. Just take /t/ and /d/ and add the voiced and devoiced diacritic respectively, for instance. We tend to in English write most unstressed vowels as schwa, even though they are not all identical. Just oddities of loose transcription. You'll find similar idiosyncrasies in the transcriptions of other languages, especially in broad or phonemic transcriptions. The reasons will vary, but ultimately, tradition is tradition, for better or for worse Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 4:20
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    I am happy to know the difference between ɝ and ɚ as being stressed and unstressed. As far as trying to hear the real difference goes, that's no concern to me if that's the only difference between them. I mean I can hear it. So that's all good. The ɚ and ɹ though, I cannot hear a difference between the dialects. I suppose there is a difference. Or is there not a difference?
    – huggie
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 6:09

1 Answer 1


An /ɝ/ is just the stressed version of an /ɚ/. For example, murder has both of them in it, being normally written as /ˈmɝdɚ/. Both of those are “r-colored” vowels. However, some transcribers prefer to represent that as /ˈmɜɹdəɹ/ instead, writing a consonant instead of little rhotic hook. Those represent the same pronunciation.

Your mother is therefore going to be either your /ˈmʌðɚ/ or your /ˈmʌðəɹ/. You need to understand though that /ɚ/ and /əɹ/ are just two ways of writing the same thing — at least in words like murder and mother. When you can get into words like murdering or mothering, then you cannot use the r-colored version for the one before the -ing, since it now has a vowel after it and so much be written as a consonant.

There are advantages and disadvantages to doing it one way or the other. Using a consonant instead of a diacritic can be easier to understand, since you don’t have to think about whether it has a consonant following it and so counts as a rhotacized vowel, or whether it has a vowel following it and so counts as a consonant.

  • mirth:          /ˈmɝθ/      or  /ˈmɜɹθ/
  • mother:       /ˈmʌðɚ/      or  /ˈmʌðəɹ/
  • mothering: /ˈmʌðəɹɪŋ/     
  • murder:       /ˈmɝdɚ/      or  /ˈmɜɹdəɹ/
  • murdered:   /ˈmɝdɚd/    or  /ˈmɜɹdəɹd/
  • murderous: /ˈmɝdəɹəs/ or  /ˈmɜɹdəɹəs/
  • murderer:    /ˈmɝdɚɚ/    or  /ˈmɜɹdəɹəɹ/

Another issue is that IPA doesn’t have special precomposed characters for other rhotacized vowels, so you have to build the others yourself, which means they don’t look like the precomposed ones:

  • Mordor:               /ˈmo˞do˞/ or  /ˈmoɹdoɹ/
  • corner:                 /ˈko˞nɚ/   or  /ˈkoɹnəɹ/
  • harder:                /ˈhɑ˞dɚ/    or  /ˈhɑɹdəɹ/
  • radar:                 /ˈɹeɪdɑ˞/   or  /ˈɹeɪdɑɹ/
  • carport:              /ˈkɑ˞po˞t/ or  /ˈkɑɹpoɹt/
  • rarer:                  /ˈɹeɪɹɚ/    or  /ˈɹeɪɹəɹ/
  • creature:             /ˈkɹitʃɚ/  or  /ˈkɹitʃəɹ/
  • entrepreneur:     /ˌɔntɹəpɹəˈnɚ/ or /ˌɔntɹəpɹəˈnɜɹ/
  • entrepreneurial: /ˌɔntɹəpɹəˈnʊɹiəl/

If you are doing phonemic transcriptions, you might consider just sticking with /r/ and not worrying about all the various phonetic realizations possible for it, including [ɝ], [ɚ], [ɹ], [ɻʷ], and all the rest.

As for trying to identify difference between the several Canadian accents and the many American ones, when it comes to your r’s, this mostly depends on whether you are comparing rhotic dialects with non-rhotic ones. Note also that the standard versions of both sets are rhotic. That means your mother is still going to be the same wherever you are, and that you don’t need to worry about it. The mother of Vancouver is the same as the one from San José.

You haven’t said whether your first language is some variety of English, or whether it is something else. If it is something else, especially one without the sorts of rhotics that occur in North America, then simply mastering those alone will be much harder, and much more important, than trying to tease out one or another difference between this or that American or Canadian accent.

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    "Another issue is that IPA doesn’t have special precomposed characters for other rhotacized vowels, so you have to build the others yourself". Technically, IPA has it, but Unicode included it as a modifier letter rather than a combining diacritic. So a font designer would need to create set of "ligatures" that mimic a combining diacritic, but I think the the rhotic hook would work like the ogonek in that although being a diacritic, it really would do better being custom tailored to each base letter. Since most font designers aren't linguists, they don't recognize it as a combiner. Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 20:56
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    So I would want to see if it's easy to train a ear to hear the difference. I think I get your /ɜɹ/ and /əɹ/ being the alternative to /ɝ/and /ɚ/. A few questions. (1) since /ɜ/ is a different sound from /ə/ I don't see why /ɜɹ/, /ɝ/ and /əɹ/, /ɚ/ should sound the same. I would say /əɹ/ to me seems more correct. (2) I don't get "since it now has a vowel after it and so much be written as a consonant." By much you mean "must"? And why?
    – huggie
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 3:50
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    In terms of phonemic transcriptions of English, there is no difference between /ˈmʌðɚ/, /ˈmʌðɹ/, and /ˈmʌðəɹ/. I believe the first two technically mean slightly different things in IPA, but not all Americans pronounce the 'r' in mother the same way, so the first may be valid for some dialects and the second for others. For the third, some transcription systems use /əɹ/ as a shorthand for /ɚ/ because that lets you use one fewer IPA character, and doesn't result in any confusion since the difference between /əɹ/ and /ɚɹ/ don't distinguish between any words. Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 4:58
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    @huggie I write it as a consonant when there are vowels to either side so that I can show they are separate syllables, similar to how the /w/ and /j/ glides can separate syllables.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 5:13
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    @PeterShor "but not all Americans pronounce the 'r' in mother the same way". That is why I would like to see if I could hear the difference among the dialects and why I'm posting the original questions. If it's valid for some dialects but not for others, then to me the difference in pronunciations is worth attending to, and so are the different IPA transcriptions. So if a page is made dedicated to all sorts of dialects, I hope the differences in IPA transcriptions are meant to describe the subtle differences in sounds.
    – huggie
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 6:02

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