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It seems that speakers of Indian English generally speak with a rhotic accent, pronouncing an [r] in all cases where spelled, whereas a speaker of British English would leave it off in postvocalic environments. This is surprising to me, because Indian English is supposed to be based on British English, which is non-rhotic.

(The r's in Indian English generally seem to be rolled [r]s, in contrast to an American English [ɹ].)

Wikipedia's article Rhoticity in English gives the following explanation: “Many varieties of Indian English are rhotic owing to the underlying phonotactics of the native Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages whilst some tend to be non-rhotic.” Still, even if an Indian speaker would find it easier to pronounce r's at the end of a word than a Japanese speaker, for instance, I would still expect them to follow BrE pronunciation as close as possible, and non-rhoticity seems to be an obvious characteristic.

For comparison, non-native speakers from China, Korea, and Japan often speak English with a non-rhotic accent (and BrE-based vowels), and this is reflected in how English loanwords are transcribed into their respective languages. While this might be because Korean and Japanese don't have terminal /r/s, standard Mandarin Chinese does have r-coloring and yet does not r-color English words, and so the phonology of the native languages doesn't seem to explain the discrepancy here.

What factors might be contributing to the rhoticity of Indian English, besides the fact that their native languages have an /r/ phoneme? Is pronouncing r's due to spelling pronunciation, for instance?

Edit: Some of the comments have raised the point that British English might not have been all that non-rhotic by the time English was being introduced to India. As best as I can tell from Wikipedia, the shift to non-rhoticity happened in the “early 19th century”: “By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety, though some variation persisted as late as the 1870s.” It's unclear whether this would be before or after when “English language public instruction began in India in the 1830s during the rule of the East India Company.”

Might there be historical evidence that the EIC's language instruction was or was not rhotic? Might Indian English have roots from before the EIC's public education, when BrE may have still been rhotic?

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    A few initial thoughts: American English is also based on British English and has rhotic dialects. Indian English also has a multigenerational history, functioning as a lingua franca from the 19th century through Indian Independence and to today. Even Scotland has rhotic dialects. Why wouldn't some Indian English dialects be rhotic? – TaliesinMerlin Feb 5 at 1:28
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    The British used to pronounce their 'r's. When do you think England colonized India? – Peter Shor Feb 5 at 1:38
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    @TaliesinMerlin British English became non-rhotic in the late 19th century, after America was already mostly settled. According to Wikipedia, "English language public instruction began in India in the 1830s during the rule of the East India Company," which should be after British English became non-rhotic. I see three possibilities here: English in India was introduced by rhotic speakers; Indian English was initially non-rhotic and later became rhotic; or Indian English was always rhotic. – MiCl Feb 5 at 1:43
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    @MiCl; British English became non-rhotic in an incredibly slow process, which started at the middle of the 18th century (if not earlier) and still hasn't ended today. – Peter Shor Feb 5 at 1:43
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    @TaliesinMerlin My bad, I meant late 18th century. Re-reading the Wikipedia page, there does seem to be some wiggle room for when this happened: "By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety, though some variation persisted as late as the 1870s." The East India Company was based in London, so I'd guess that the London accent is what we're concerned with, although perhaps the company could have been from the more rhotic parts of England. – MiCl Feb 5 at 4:34
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From Wikipedia's page on Indian English

A number of distinctive features of Indian English are due to "the vagaries of English spelling". Most Indian languages, unlike English, have a nearly phonetic spelling, so the spelling of a word is a highly reliable guide to its modern pronunciation. Indians' tendency to pronounce English phonetically as well can cause divergence from Western English.
[…]
In RP [Received Pronunciation], /r/ occurs only before a vowel. But some speakers of Indian English, primarily in the South, use /r/ in almost all positions in words using the letter 'r', similar to most American and some Irish dialects. The allophone used is a mild trill or a tap. Indian speakers do not typically use the retroflex approximant /ɻ/ for , which is common for American English speakers

This feature, I'm surmising, is mainly based on the socioeconomic status of the Indian English speaker and whether they studied in the British Isles or in the US.

The period of highest migration from India to England was between 1955 and 1975. Post-war Britain found itself in the midst of a severe shortage of labour and in 1948 the British Nationality Act was issued, this granted Commonwealth citizens free entry to Britain.

In India, the majority of families who took advantage of this law were from middle-ranking peasant families in Punjab, whose fathers, brothers and husbands had previously been employed in the colonial army or the police force. Their children attended British state schools and many acquired or “learnt” the British accent. In the following audio excerpt, Gilli Salvat remembers arriving in England from India shortly after 1948 and her experience attending school. Throughout the excerpt, she speaks with a marked London accent with no trace of rhoticity whatsoever. Towards the end of the recording she says,

(2.04) And when I went to school, all the kids, equally used to take the piss out of me. Right? Because of how I talked and they thought that I was an Indian from the States. Yeah? Like, a red Indian. Right? And, er, I think in about three weeks I changed my accent and, um, I started learning to survive.

Instead, the wealthy generally chose to remain in India and during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s a number of them sent their children abroad to English boarding or grammar schools and/or universities. As a result, highly educated English speaking Indians did not sound like the stereotypical Indians that used to be mocked, mimicked or parodied by the British from that era.

Wikipedia confirms my limited experience–I used to live in London during the 70s and early 80s–and says

While there is an assumption that English is readily available in India, available studies show that its usage is actually restricted to the elite,[24] because of inadequate education to large parts of the Indian population. The use of outdated teaching methods and the poor grasp of English exhibited by the authors of many guidebooks, disadvantage students who rely on these books.

From the website eslan (English Speak Like a Native)

In Hindi, the [r] has the same quality as the /t̬/ (the tap) in English. The tongue tip quickly taps the alveolar ridge. … The British /r/ on the other hand is always silent at the end of the words and between a vowel and a consonant. E.g road; cord; park; ordinary; letter; first etc.
Indian learners often do pronounce the silent /r/.

In an essay shared by Darshan Kadu, four main features of Indian English are listed, the rhotic /r/ is never mentioned but the third feature probably explains why the speech of many Indian English speakers has the rhotic /r/

3. Indians, quite often, tend to speak English with the same accent they use for their mother tongue. Since there are several regions and regional languages, the English spoken by Indians gets influenced by their native accents.

That is why the English accent of a person from Kerala is quite different from that of Tamil Nadu or West Bengal or Punjab. Not only gets the accent, the pronunciation of English words also influenced by regional factors.

There is a YouTube video of an Indian woman, which seems to have been lifted from a dating site, who is clearly not a British or an American speaker. The title of the clip is Indian English–Pronunciation–rhotic r, and she speaks with a thick Indian accent and rolls her Rs. I only wish I could identify which region she is from but I simply haven't got a clue.

Do as many wealthy Indian families send their children to English boarding and prep schools, and/or to universities as they did back in the 1900s-1970s?

…India's strong history with British boarding schools stretching back over a hundred years.

Unfortunately, I don't know the answer to that question but I would wager that US universities attract far greater numbers of Indians and Pakistanis than thirty or forty years ago. Secondly, and lastly, educated Indians who did not spend their childhood in England, but immigrated to the British Isles during the 50s, 60s, and 70s often spoke excellent English but their sometimes thick accents and idiosyncratic word stress made it easy to identify them as immigrants from British Indians who were born and grew up in the UK.

General Indian English and its myriads of other English dialects (e.g. Malayali English, Maharashtrian English, Punjabi English, Bengali English, Hindi English) is a fascinating topic which I know very little of but on EL&U we do have many IE speakers whom I sure could explain far better and in far greater detail and depth.

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There are multiple things going on here. There's the 'why' question, there's the 'r' question, and then there's India.

There are three kinds of answers to 'why' questions in linguistic phenomena.

  • it just happened (random drift). Why did the upper class accent in Southwest England in the early 19thc turn non-rhotic? Dropping r's ain't hard, they're pretty breathy consonants already. It may have just gone away all on its own. Sociologically, any kind of change can be an in-group marker, continued by the group to exclude outsiders. Of course the changes aren't totally arbitrary: a phoneme will drift into another more easily if it is nearby, t > d > th > 0, but not very often t > ng

  • Exposure to a different community. Why did the upper class accent in Boston become non-rhotic in the late 19th c? Probably to mimic the British accent (a sociologically desirable accent).

  • There's a documented case of one person saying something one weird way once and then everybody starting to follow. This is rare. Everybody started saying the solecistic 'My bad' (for 'My mistake') after the movie 'Clueless' popularized it (it existed before then but the widespread use came from the movie). This is rare to confirm, but may well be a non-trivial source of changes in languages.

But these why answers are somewhat conjectural and because of lack of ancient source material, phonological ones are hard to pin down unless there's datable poetry with rhyming for scholars to match up.


Asking about 'r' is extra interesting because there are so many varieties of it: a tap, a retroflex, a lateral, a trill, a velar fricative, a coloring on a vowel (all of which can drift in different directions according to tongue position). And becoming non-rhotic has many flavors, sometimes having intrusive or linking r's, sometimes one, and sometimes neither.


Asking about India and Indian English is complicated because India is kinda a big country, with many highly populated local standard languages each with different phonological systems (though it does have some Sprachbund characteristics. And then there's the English colonization, which in no way replaced any languages in India but, to oversimplify, the Indian variety of English became a lingua franca, a language of higher education/business, but such crossover languages aren't necessarily homogeneous.

Oh, and also English itself is complicated enough. It has rhotic and non-rhotic varieties. American, Scots, Irish, Wessex are rhotic, and English colonists may have taught English to Indians rhotically 150 years ago, or maybe the overwhelming number of American Youtube videos are teaching them now.


So to combine these all together, it's all one big caveat. There's no single Indian English, r's are different among the local standard languages plus non-rhoticity, there may have been some imitation of the RP r-dropping as well as a tendency to be rhotic or non-rhotic from the local standard.

If there is a particular IE accent, say of Punjabis in SW England or bank clerks in Hyderabad, then one might be more specific. In the first example, Punjabi is rhotic (with a postvocalic r being a tap). So if they are r-dropping in English then it is probably an imitation of RP (or Estuary which is also non-rhotic).


At this point, you're probably wondering why I don't just answer what you know I think you're asking about, the stereotypical Indian speaking English, like Maz Jobrani or Apu on the Simpsons. Actors are pretty good at imitating others, but they're not perfect, they're just making up stuff. They're just not particularly trustworthy.

Also, I'm not sure that most Indian English speakers are in fact rhotic. On the English Dialects Archive there are 17 instances of Indian English, and my (rhotic-ear biased) survey showed only 2 of those were rhotic. But it could be that those were not reflective of the generic IE accent that you're thinking of.

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    To my ear, most of the speakers in the Dialect Archive are speaking BrE more so than Indian English. My impression of what Indian English sounds like isn't based on popular media so much as the speech of actual Indian immigrants, international students, and YouTubers (e.g., youtube.com/watch?v=nCmPR-pBeV8). Having more continental vowels, merging v and w, rolling r's, leaving more consonants unaspirated, having more varied intonation, etc. do seem to actual features of Indian English, which I don't see much of in the Dialects Archive recordings. – MiCl Feb 8 at 23:14

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