Sound

English Pronunciation

The American English r-controlled vowels

American English has four widely recognized r-controlled-vowels: schwa+r, ar sound, or sound, and air sound. These sounds deserve special attention from any learner striving for American pronunciation. This is due to the fact that American English pronunciation is rhotic, meaning that the r sound is pronounced during r-controlled vowels, even if the following sound is a consonant sound. This is in contrast to British Received Pronunciation.

r-controlled vowel Key Words
schwa+r /ɚ/stir the back of the tongue is bunched high so the sides of the tongue touch the back side teeth (same as the r sound)
ar sound /ɑr/star the tongue is set low, inside the bottom teeth, then the sound moves into an r sound
or sound /ɔr/store the tongue is pushed back and held middle-low, then the sound moves into an r sound
air sound /ɛr/stair the tongue is slightly rounded upward in the middle of the mouth, then the sound moves into an r sound

The schwa+r pronunciation is unique in that it includes no vowel sound (it sounds identical to an r sound when spoken in isolation); however, it retains the vowel-like quality of being syllabic, forcing a syllable to occur. The three remaining r-controlled vowels are combinations of a vowel sound plus the r sound.

Complicating the pronunciation of r-controlled vowels is the fact that there are two options available for pronouncing the r portion of each sound:

  • the bunched method, in which the sides of the back of the tongue are raised
  • the tip-up method, in which the tip of the tongue is raised and curled back behind the tooth ridge

Since either option will produce an acceptable and correct sound, non-native speakers should experiment with both options to discover which is personally easier.


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