NOTE: I speak a rhotic variety of English.

I am struggling with how to explain r-coloured vowels/vocalic R to teachers during a presentation on the phonemes of English. Many grapheme-phoneme lists include "er", "ar" and "or" as Vocalic R/Bossy R/Vowel Rs or an equivalent term. Most do not list "air", "ear”, ire" or "oor/ure”.

When I search materials from the linguistics world I have seen one description where /ɚ/ is called a syllabic consonant and the other sets are vowel+consonant (Ladefoged?). However, in other sources I see the same three listed as r-coloured vowels: /ɚ, ar, or/. It makes sense that /ɚ, ɝ/ is listed as it's own separate thing but I do not understand why /ar/ and /or/ get a mention when /ɛr, Ir, aIr, ur,jur/ do not.

Furthermore, if you are asking kids & teachers to identify sounds and use letters to represent sounds, are there a bunch of r-coloured vowels or is there one and the rest are vowel+consonant?
For example,

  • Are there two sounds in "car" or three: c-ar or c-a-r?

My personal preference is say that there is one r-coloured vowel--ɚ--and the rest are vowel+consonant.
For example, surely the 'a' in 'ar' can have the same phonological representation as the 'a' in "father" and "water," which makes c-a-r quite logical.

However, I am clearly going against the prevailing teaching that says r-coloured vowels are to be taught as their own phonemes (like diphthongs, I guess?).

Maybe I am missing something.

  • What is the reasoning for singling out /ar/ and /or/?
  • Are the third formants more affected by the /r/ than the others?
  • Are r-colored vowels actually vowels or are they vowel+consonant?
  • 2
    "I am struggling with how to explain r-coloured vowels" —Ha, you and all the rest of the history of the language both! Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 15:24
  • 1
    It's going to important to distinguish phonemic analysis from pedagogical approaches to alphabet and phonics (though perhaps the latter would be smart to incorporate more of the former). Kids might be taught to think of "car" as "c-a-r," but that educational approach might say more about how we help intuitive minds collide with counterintuitive spelling practices and scaffold them through it in simple ways... than about practical ways to assess phonology. Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 15:28
  • (Oh, and of course this whole topic is heavily dependent on region, as you point out at the start. David Attenborough and Antonio Banderas can do very different things with -ar. That doesn't mean that there aren't objective answers to be had, and I look forward to hearing from someone with more expertise than me.) Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 15:31
  • Generally speaking, phonemes in English are given as minimal pairs in IPA with the spelling with which they are materialized (graphemes): beer/bier. same sound. Contrasted: beer/bare versus bear. The spelling is merely the materialization, not the sound. They are not given as you suggest: er, ar or or. So, for example: eəʳ [sound] has the grapheme: air, are, ear, ere, eir, ayer in these words: chair, dare, pear, where, their, prayer
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 0:30

1 Answer 1


I am guessing you speak a variety of American English, because this seems to be the main variety of English that contains r-colored vowels. The difference between the perceptions of the people who claim that there are three r-colored vowels in American English and your perceptions is that Americans don't all speak the same way. (And they really should know this, but it's not clear to me that they do.)

I also speak American English, and I personally pronounce /ɚ/, /ɑr/, /or/, /ʊr/ as a single phone (pronouncing the vowel and the /r/ at the same time, and not as a sequence of two sounds), while I pronounce /ɛr/ and /ɪr/ as the vowels /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ followed by an /r/. So I personally have four r-colored vowels.

However, from various things I've read, I think I'm in a small minority who use an r-colored /ʊr/. Lots of Americans don't even have the phoneme /ʊr/ at all; depending on the word, they pronounce it as /ɚ/, /or/, or the two-syllable /uɚ/ (rhyming with newer), and I assume most of the others pronounce it as /ʊ/ followed by /r/.

And as an aside, for me the vowel in far is partway between the vowel in fad and the vowel in father (closer to father), while the vowel in court is partway between the vowel in caught and the vowel in coat, so for us Americans with r-colored vowels, they aren't necessarily the same as the non-r-colored vowels.

Thus, my guess is that people who first classified the r-colored vowels as /ɚ/, /ɑr/, or /or/, were assuming without adequate justification that in General American, these three /r/-vowels are single phones while the others are vowels followed by /r/.

  • Thank you for the comments. I'm in western Canada, so the same as general American English for most sounds, especially varieties on the west coast. It helps that you describe /ɚ, ar, or, ʊr/ as one phone and not two while the others are two distinct phones.
    – Colleen
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 5:21

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