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I've read that some native speakers say the "r" sound by bunching their tongue (bunched "r") and some by pointing their tip at the alveolar ridge (retroflex "r"). When I say it, it sometimes feels more natural to pronounce it one way, and sometimes the other, depending on the sounds around it. Do native speakers also do this? Should I practice only saying it one way?

  • If the r is at the beginning of the word it feels different, like in "run" it starts with the bunched. But an r at the end of the word may use the retroflex. – W.E. Mar 31 at 21:43
  • Also there are rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciation zones. – Michael Harvey Mar 31 at 21:48
  • W.E. so does the retroflex r only appear in r-colored vowels? And should it appear in any specific ones? – Tilen Mar 31 at 22:03
  • @Tilen: A while ago I looked at a number of ESL websites, and various English teachers had all sorts of strange rules for when to use the bunched 'r' and when to use the retroflex 'r' (at least strange to me). So use whichever you feel is most natural. They're allophones in English, which means we can't tell the difference (like the Japanese can't tell the difference between 'r' and 'l') unless the listener is somebody trained in phonetics and is listening closely. – Peter Shor Apr 1 at 1:06
  • I'm American. We are the kings of the rhotic R. I've never used a retroflex R in English. Maybe Brits do. I only use the bunched R. The most difficult rhotic Rs appear following each other in an unstressed syllable (e.g., error, clearer, fairer). Try saying the name Rory Rohrer. According to a Harvard study, even about one-third of native speaking Americans will stumble on that name, often saying something that sounds more like Roy Roar, the unstressed "rer" sound being the most difficult to articulate, and it's all with the back of the tongue at the throat. – Benjamin Harman Apr 1 at 3:25
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Yes. According to Mielke, Baker & Archangeli (2010), in American English, some speakers consistently use only one shape, some others employ both interchangeably, and others alternate the two consistently depending on environment.

Consonants that involve the tongue body (especially [ʃ] and [k]) and [i] are more or less bunched already, so /r/ adjacent to these sounds tends to be bunched. Retroflex /r/ is common when next to labials, word boundaries, and back vowels because these sounds do not interfere with retroflexion.

As seen in Zhou et al. (2007), however, there are various degrees of bunching/retroflexion and the shape of /r/ can often be somewhere in-between.

As for your practice, you need not worry or be conscious about it so long as you can produce either of them because there is very little audible difference. You should use whichever you find easier to pronounce; in fact that's what native speakers do.

  • Using bunched next to the consonants [ʃ] and [k] makes sense to me. However, [i] is a front vowel, and using a retroflex [ɻ] or alveolar [ɹ] is so much easier for me in this case. – Peter Shor Oct 10 at 20:46

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