Pumphrey’s Illustrated Pronunciation
The Scream by E. Munch
Today we will consider the sound of the letter r
The letter r has many pronunciations, throughout the English-speaking world. Here we will try to pronounce it the standard Southern British way.
Remember: British pronunciation is crazy. It will drive you mad trying to match up spelling and pronunciation. However, some people do need or want to sound more ‘English’ and understanding how this r is formed is vital for that. It will also help you to hear fast spoken English as you know what the fast-talking, lazy-muscled southern speakers are doing with their mouths. Also, I think it’s amazing and I love talking about pronunciation.
Luckily, there are some patterns to this sound… but, these patterns are TERRIFYING. Prepare yourself. Ready?
These words in bold have a vowel sound after the r. This means you pronounce the r
right red children nearest
How do you pronounce it? WAIT, you are not ready yet. Keep going.
These words in bold have a consonant sound directly after the r.
nurse first burn work
How do you pronounce it? YOU DON’T. DO NOT SAY THE r. Never say the r. Make a weird vowel sound and go directly to the final consonant.
Quick quiz: What is the vowel sound that connects these four words?
nurse first burn work
Answer: /3:/ the sound of ‘errrr…. I don’t know what to say’.
How about these words?
near far car clear
Well, if you say them with nothing after, DO NOT SAY THE r.
If you say them with a consonant sound after, DO NOT SAY THE r.
If you say them really slowly and clearly, DO NOT SAY THE r.
If you speak fast, AND if there is a vowel sound after, SAY THE r.
Annoying, isn’t it?
A useful summary is: say r before a vowel sound, not before a consonant, including when words meet up in sentences. Then the only problem is recognising when there are vowel or consonant sounds.
Which words in blue can have a spoken r sound in fast speech? Answer on the right hand side of the page.
a) You bought a car!
b) My idea is clear
c) I came by car and bus
d) What a clear idea!
e) It’s quite near
f) It’s not far
g) I live near a shop
h) The station is far away
Answer: c) d) g) h)
Finally, these words. Don’t punch me, but these are the same as the words in the example above. They have an e on the end, but because the e is silent, the sound of the word ends with a r sound
more there were are
Which words in blue can have a spoken r sound in fast speech?
i) Any more?
j) It’s there!
k) The way we were
l) The way we are
m) Any more elephants?
n) Is there a window?
o) We were amazed
p) We are only human
q) We were furious
r) We are voting Clinton
Answer: m) n) o) p)
So, how do we make this damn sound?
First, remember the picture you first saw at the beginning of this blog?
The Scream, by Munch. Make this face with your face. Do it now. No one is looking.
Feel the despair – English pronunciation is awful. Now, cheer up. This long face is very useful for English pronunciation. We need long cheeks and for the top teeth to be separate from the bottom. Massage your cheeks with your hands, ahhhh! Nice. The jaw should be lazy and relaxed. Relax into your long English face. Allow your tongue to relax in the base of your mouth.
After years of research I have developed the following important visual tool.
The Snake in the Cave
I drew a picture of a snake asleep in a cave. What do you think it means? Yes, that I came last in my class at art college, but what does it also represent?
Yes, you have correctly understood that this is your mouth. The snake is your tongue relaxed in the base of your mouth (behind your bottom teeth) and the stalactites are your top teeth.
When an r is not pronounced, this is where your tongue should be. Relaxed, NOT MOVING. If it moves, it will change the sound of the word. This is REALLY difficult for most people who are used to saying r in different ways because your snake wants to move and dance but a southern British snake HATES dancing. Try, though. Try hard not to dance it, because I know you can. The more you practice, the more you will improve. Don’t wake the snake. All the words in blue are said with a sleeping snake.
It’s quite near. It’s not far. You bought a car! My idea is clear. We were fantastic. We are voting Clinton. Any more? It’s there! The way we were.The way we are now.
Remember to keep your face nice and long like The Scream.
Now, sometimes the snake wakes up. It hovers in your mouth, the tip is still, not touching anything, and not moving. It’s just awake! And alert! Is it sensing food? Is it waiting to attack? Yes, because this snake eats pronunciation and it attacks the letter r.
Notice that the cave has grown? Your lower lip goes up AND in front of your top teeth (but don’t touch your teeth) so there is tension in the lips too. Don’t worry – you can’t look stupid if your face is actually a cave with a snake in it.
I live near a shop. The station is far away. I came by car and bus. What a clear idea! Any more elephants? Is there a window? We were amazed. We are only human
All these words have vowel sounds after the r. Push the r sound onto the next word:
I live nea ra shop. The station is fa raway. I came by ca rand bus. What a clea ridea! Any mo relephants? Is the ra window? We we ramazed. We a ronly human.
/ɑɪlɪvnɪə rəʃɒp/ /ðəsteɪʃənɪsfɑ:rəweɪ/
Now decide where the snake is asleep and where it is awake:
Where are you from? Oh! Manchester. Really? I’ve always wanted to go there. I was born in Germany but I live in Switzerland now. I’ve travelled a lot – my favourite places were New York and Birmingham.
Now practise this, over and over again. Record yourself and listen to yourself. I know you hate doing that but I insist. Do it. Do it now.
That’s all from Pumphrey’s Pron, this time.
If you’d like to learn more about English Pronunciation, check out the EC’s English lessons for adults in London
*Thanks to Edda Sharpe & Jan Hadyn Rowles for The Scream Face (How to Do Accents, Published by Oberon Books).