R Part 2: How to Pronounce R at the Beginnings of Words

This is Part 2 of our 3-part series of how to pronounce North American English R. If you haven’t watched or read Part 1 yet, where we talked about what is called vocalic ER, then please check that out first then come back here, as a lot of what we talked about then is important for this lesson. Also stay tuned for our third and final part, which puts all of this information together to tackle some of the trickier R, and even L, pronunciations.

If you remember from Part 1, we discussed that R is a very weird sound in English compared to other world languages. R is very clearly a consonant in other languages, whether it be a tapping sound with the tip of the tongue in the front of the mouth like in Spanish and Italian, among others, or more in the back like in French. For English, we want to think of R more like a vowel with this special R-ness to it. This is why in Part 1 we called it VOCALIC -er — vocalic means vowel.

For Part 2, we will talk about what is often called PRE-VOCALIC R.

 

WHAT IS PREVOCALIC R?

Prevocalic R refers to the “r” sound when it comes before the vowel (pre = before; vocalic =vowel). This type of R is often found at the beginnings of words, like in “red”, “rose” and “right”.

It’s also found when one or more consonant is before it, like “from”, “tree”, and “strong”. If you look in a dictionary at the pronunciation guide, it will often write this PREVOCALIC r using the international phonetic alphabet symbol ɹ, whereas the VOCALIC -ER at the ends of words and syllables is often written as ɚ or ɝ.  The difference between these two is not important for this lesson. We mainly mention it in case you see them written in a pronunciation dictionary. For the purposes of this lesson, they are both pronounced more or less the same.

 

I THOUGHT THERE WAS JUST ONE R SOUND…

One question you might ask is “how is this important to my pronunciation? They sound pretty similar to me”.

One interesting thing to think about is that the errors many English learners make are different depending on if you are talking about a vocalic ɚ vs. a prevocalic ɹ, and therefore it is helpful to learn each one as similar but slightly different sounds.

Let’s consider a Japanese speaker learning English. A common and well-known feature is that Japanese speakers sometimes mistake the R and L sound, saying words like “rice” as something similar to “lice”. However, we tend to see this pattern in prevocalic ɹ at the beginnings of words. Do people make this same pattern with ɚ at the ends of words, for example in words like “her”?

No, they often don’t. Instead, it’s more common to drop the R altogether and say something like “huh” (written phonetically as /hə/) rather than putting an l on the end. This is, at least partly, because there are slight differences in prevocalic  and vocalic ɚ that result in a difference in errors. This is not limited to Japanese either, and can often be seen in different ways depending on what your native language is.

 

HOW DO I PRONOUNCE A PREVOCALIC R?

So, you may be asking yourself, what is it exactly that makes this prevocalic ɹ different, and how do we make it? Here’s some good news: the tongue position is very much similar to the vocalic ɚ, so if you have that down, you can make this sound as well!

A useful way to think about prevocalic ɹ it is almost like a “fast ɚ”.

Let’s first explain this with two other sounds that behave the same way, and you may get an idea of what we mean. Let’s take the sounds /j/ (often written with the letter “y”) in words like “you” and “yes” and /w/ in words like “we” and “what”. These sounds are called glides or semi-vowels, and that is because these are like faster versions of vowels /i/ and /u/. Try saying the word “yes” slowly. Yyyyyeeeessss. When slowed down, you may notice it sounds like the vowel /i/ (it may sound something like iiiiiyyyeeesss. Also, the tongue positioning for /j/ is the same as the positioning for /i/. In this way, /j/ is the “fast”, or glide, form of /i/. Same for /w/ in “we” — wwwwweeeee — /w/ is a “fast” or glide, form of /u/.

The same can be said for ɚ and ɹ, where ɚ is the vowel, like /i/ and /u/ in the previous examples, and ɹ is “fast” or glide form of ɚ. Let’s try it with a word like “red”. When saying “red” slowly, it starts off with what sounds like an ɚ, so something like errr-rrrrreeeeddd (phonetically /ɚɚɚɹɹɹed/. 

 

LET’S PRACTICE!

We can use this slow down / speed up method to help us with those prevocalic ɹ sounds at the beginnings of words. Let’s do it together step by step. 

  1. You simply say the whole word slowly, starting off with the vocalic ɚ that we discussed in Part 1, then proceed through the rest of the word at a slow pace so you have time to say each individual sound. 
    • RED: ɚɹɹɹɛɛɛd
    • RICE: ɚɹɹɹaaaɪs
    • READ: ɚɹɹɹiiid
  2. Now, let’s only slow down the R.
    • RED: ɚɹɹɹ — ɛd
    • RICE: ɚɹɹɹ — aɪs
    • READ: ɚɹɹɹ — id
  3. For the final step, let’s try and speed the whole word up.
    • RED: /ɹɛd/
    • RICE: /ɹaɪs/
    • READ: /ɹid/

 

You can even use these three steps for harder words, like when you have consonants in front of R, like in  

  • FREE: fɚ — ɹɹɹi
  • STRONG: stɚ — ɹɹɹɑŋ

or when R is in between two vowels, where it has both the vocalic ɚ and the prevocalic ɹ, like in

  • DURING: dɚ — ɹɹɹɪŋ
  • CURRENT: kɚ — ɹɹɹɪnt

 

CONCLUSION

Now you have learned the tools to master this sound! Stay tuned for our third and final installment of this R-series, where we will discuss the more advanced pronunciation of R (and even a bit about L)!

Don’t forget to watch part 1 here!

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