From what I understand on phonetics/phonology, /ɪə/, /eə/, /ʊə/ can simply be considered as allophones of /ɪr/, /er/, /ʊr/, but most traditional dictionaries treat them as distinct phonemes. Is that just a learners' dictionary thing (to denote the clear phonetic differences between major dialects, rhotic or not, etc.) for the sake of convenience or is it legitimately phonolocal?

  • Are you asking whether /ɪə/, /eə/, /ʊə/ are phonemes in non-rhotic varieties of English? (i.e. in ones where we don't pronounce R at the end of a syllable) Nov 4, 2015 at 14:40
  • I just did some research on German phonology and apparently there is a similar situation en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_German_phonology#Phonetic which makes me wonder why /ɪə/, /eə/, /ʊə/ are treated as distinct phonemes in English. Also, you mentioned about non-rhotic varieties makes me thing that treatment is more likely to be for convenience for learners who try to follow a model (AmE, BrE, etc.) rather than to be scientifically and legitimately phonological. Nov 5, 2015 at 7:44
  • Historically, /eə/ was an allophone of /eɪr/, and not /er/. This is why fairy and ferry are pronounced differently. However, they are no longer allophones; day ring and daring are now pronounced differently by (I believe) all English speaking dialects. So we now have a four-way distinction between /eɪr/, /er/, /ar/, and /eər/ (the first appearing only in words like dayroom with a morpheme boundary between /eɪ/ and /r/. Nov 5, 2015 at 10:04
  • @PeterShor: couldn't we consider the "day ring" and "daring" contrast to just be due to different syllabification, like the difference between "night rate" and "nitrate"? (I've also heard that "shell.fish" and "self.ish" contrast for some speakers, though I don't know how consistent or robust the distinction is).
    – herisson
    Nov 5, 2015 at 11:11
  • @sumelic: I guess you could consider them that way. For me, they definitely feel like different phonemes. Nov 5, 2015 at 11:43

3 Answers 3


There is a contrast (in most non-rhotic varieties of English) between words like "ferry" /feri/ and "fairy" /feəri/. How should we analyse them if /eə/ = /er/? As /feri/ and /ferri/? That doesn't seem right to most people. Perhaps you could use syllabification (/fe.ri/ vs. /fer.i/), but people don't really agree about how to syllabify words like "ferry."

Another reason for the r-less notation is for parallelism with the notation of two other phonemes that can correspond to rhotic vowels in rhotic Englishes: /ɑː/ (START lexical set) and /ɔː/ (NORTH and FORCE lexical sets).

Since /ɑː/ and /ɔː/ in non-rhotic dialects also have other origins than vowels historically followed by r (the BATH and PALM lexical sets, and the THOUGHT lexical set), we can't analyze them as /ɑr/ and /ɔr/, unless you want to say that words like bath [bɑːθ] and caught [kɔːt] have somehow undergone a phonological shift that added the phoneme /r/ after the vowel. (Most phonologists do not want to say this.)

The sounds [ɪə] and [ʊə] can also arise in some dialects from sequences that lack historical /r/ by way of vowel coalescence (in words like idea), so the same issue of historical development applies there.


In most American dialects, /ɪər/, /eər/, /ʊər/ are allophones of /ɪr/, /er/, /ʊr/. Some speakers say /nɪər/ (near), but /nɪrər/ (nearer) and /mɪrər/ (mirror). So if you speak one of these dialects (or are learning English from somebody who does), this distinction may be confusing.

Dictionaries make these distinctions because they exist for many speakers. In the U.S. Northeast, many people (both rhotic and non-rhotic speakers) still make these distinctions, and outside of North America, they are hardly ever allophones.


From what I understand on phonetics/phonology, /ɪə/, /eə/, /ʊə/ can simply be considered as allophones of /ɪr/, /er/, /ʊr/

I'm not sure where you derived this understanding from. It seems obviously incorrect as those sets are distinct by definition of the symbols themselves. I quote:

Since phonemes are abstractions of speech sounds, not the sounds themselves, they have no direct phonetic transcription. Allophone - Wikipedia

Maybe you are referring to non-rhotic* varieties of English (such as the one I speak). For example I pronounce 'iron' and 'ion' identically.

However in the US for example those two words are quite distinct. They are also different in Scotland, and some regions of England.

So, if you are learning the Received Pronunciation* version of British English you have to adjust your understanding of the usage of the symbols but not their meaning. An American dictionary will not tell you how to pronounce RP English.

Rhoticity in English - Wikipedia Rhoticity in English refers to the situations in which English speakers pronounce the historical rhotic consonant /r/, and is one of the most prominent distinctions by which English varieties can be classified. In rhotic varieties of English, speakers pronounce /r/ in all instances, while in non-rhotic varieties, speakers no longer pronounce /r/ in settings in which it is not followed by a vowel

Received Pronunciation - Wikipedia Received Pronunciation (RP) /rɨˈsiːvd prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃən/ is the accent of Standard English in the United Kingdom, with a relationship to regional accents similar to the relationship in other European languages between their standard varieties and their regional forms.

  • 1
    I liked you minimal pairs very much. However, can you provide any minimal pairs involving the sounds/phonemes given by OP, as the /aɪ/ in iron and ion is not one of them. If you can't then maybe OP is correct! I'm holding back on the upvote till then! Nov 4, 2015 at 14:37
  • Hmm actually on reflection your iron/ion example isn't quite so good after all, sadly. If there was an underlying R in the word iron in non-rhotic English it would be pronounced as it is followed by a vowel ... This, it seems, is just a case of two different pronunciations of the word. Nov 4, 2015 at 14:42
  • Your first comment is valid so I'll look for specific examples later when I have time. In the meantime, I don't quite understand your second comment. You say, "If there was an underlying R in the word iron in non-rhotic English it would be pronounced as it is followed by a vowel". Either that is a truism or it is incorrect, depending on how one reads it. Either way I don't think it invalidates my answer. Perhaps you could go into more detail? (I'll be away from my computer for some while now) Nov 4, 2015 at 15:04
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    I don't think your minimal pair of "iron" and "ion" works here. The "main" diphthong in this case would be /aɪ/, and syllables would be broken down to /aɪ/ + /(r)ən/ (in fact, I'm yet to see "iron" be considered contain a diphthong /ɪə/ at all), which has nothing to do with my question which addresses /ɪə/ as in "clear". I would appreciate a minimal pair that well represents the phonemic distinction of /ɪr/ and /ɪə/, not concerning about a specific rhotic or non-rhotic variety, but the general phonology of the English language. Nov 5, 2015 at 7:57
  • @Hugh: One standard near-minimal pair with /ɪr/ and /ɪə/ is mirror and nearer, which don't rhyme in non-rhotic dialects, although they do in most American ones. And if you accept merer as an English word (it's quite rare), this is an actual minimal pair. Nov 5, 2015 at 10:12

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