Fire. Oil. Hour. These are just a few of the difficult words to pronounce in English.
These are words that many English students have a hard time pronouncing, and they aren’t sure why. Based on their spelling, they look simple enough, right? Have you ever read words like this and found yourself not quite sure how it’s supposed to be pronounced? Or maybe you have a hard time getting your tongue around the sounds?
You’ve come to the right place because we’ve got some tips and strategies to help you improve your speaking, accent, and fluency!
This is the third and final part of our 3-part series on the North American pronunciation of R. We wanted to use this last installment of the series to address some of the tricky R words that students have problems or concerns about. We are including some difficult L pronunciations as well because some of the trips and strategies apply to these words as well.
Before continuing, it might be helpful to check out some of our previous videos and blog posts that we made here on Go Natural English, including R part 1 and part 2 as well as our post about diphthongs, because we think it will really help put everything together nicely in improving your R!
In Part 1, we discussed words and syllables that end in -er/-ir, like her, stir, etc. You may remember that we like to think of ɚ as the building block that every R sound builds upon. If you can get a solid ɚ sound, you can definitely carry that over to any other type of R with some training and practice!
In Part 2, we built upon that and applied these principles to r when it comes before vowels. This prevocalic ɹ is found in words like red, rose, free, and strong.
But, what about a word like “hair”? It doesn’t end in -er, otherwise, it would be the word “her”. And the “r” certainly doesn’t come before the vowel. That’s where the remainder of these R-words fall under. I like to call these “r-colored diphthongs”, which sounds like a fancy term, but stick with us. We will walk you through it and you will hopefully see how it can actually make thinking about R a bit easier than you may have thought it was!
If you recall from our diphthongs post, a diphthong is when two vowel sounds occupy the same syllable, like /a/ and /ɪ/ coming together to form the sound /aɪ/. Remember, it’s kind of like saying the two individual sounds separately, but faster.
That’s how we will start to think of words and syllables that have vowels before ɚ. Let’s apply it to these examples:
- ɔɚ: or, store, more, roar
- ɛɚ: hair, fair, mare, lair
If you slow these down, they act like diphthongs do. In the case of ɔɚ, it’s an ɔ (like an “oh” sound) plus your regular standard ɚ that we discussed in Part 1.
Same with ɛɚ, starting with ɛ like in “get”, and then transitioning it to the standard ɚ.
Try these syllables as separate sounds first, then repeat them, progressively blending them together a bit faster each time.
- ɔ || ɚ
- MORE: mɔɚ
- STORE: stɔɚ
- ɛ || ɚ
- HAIR: hɛɚ
- FAIR: fɛɚ
Now, things get interesting when you add an -er after an existing diphthong. Let’s refresh our memories on the English diphthongs — here they are are on their own without ɚ. If you’re confused, check out our diphthongs posts for more background on these sounds.
- /oʊ/: row /roʊ/
- /eɪ/: may /meɪ/
- /aɪ/: high /haɪ/
- /aʊ/: ow /aʊ/
- /ɔɪ/: coy /kɔɪ/
Watch what happens to the number of syllables when you add ɚ into the mix:
/oʊ/: row /roʊ/
- oʊ.wɚ: “rower” /roʊ.wɚ/ ; “mower” /moʊ.wɚ/
/eɪ/: may /meɪ/
- eɪ.jɚ: “mayor” /meɪ.jɚ/ ; “layer” /leɪ.jɚ/
aɪ: high /haɪ/
- aɪ.jɚ: “higher” (and “hire”) /haɪ.jɚ/ ; fi.re /faɪ.jɚ/
aʊ: ow /aʊ/
- aʊ.wɚ: “hour”: /aʊ.wɚ/ ; “flower” (and “flour”): /flaʊ.wɚ/
ɔɪ: coy /kɔɪ/
- ɔɪ.jɚ: “coyer”: /kɔɪ.jɚ/ ; “foyer” (some accents): /fɔɪ.jɚ/
Instead of having three vowels in one syllable (the two vowels of the diphthong plus the ɚ makes three), we tend to in North American English break it up and form a second syllable.
Interestingly enough, you’ll notice this often makes pretty important distinctions between similar sounding words too, such as:
- mare /mɛɚ/ vs. mayor /meɪ.jɚ/
- lair /lɛɚ/ vs. layer /leɪ.jɚ/
- roar /rɔɚ/ vs. rower /roʊ.wɚ/
- more /mɔɚ/ vs. mower /moʊ.wɚ/
These patterns are the same for words that have aɪ.jɚ, aʊ.wɚ, and ɔɪ.jɚ.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
You may notice that words that look, based on their spelling, like they would be one-syllable words, like “fire” and “hour”, are actually often pronounced by many Americans as two syllables because of this pattern. Knowing this information may help you sound closer to native speakers.
It’s also much easier to break these words into two syllables. Most would agree saying “fire” as “fa.yer” /faɪ.jɚ/ is easier than trying to squeeze it all into one syllable.
WHAT ABOUT L?
So you may remember that we mentioned we’d be discussing a bit of L as well. This is because many words that end in L don’t have to, but can often in North American speakers follow a similar pattern to what we discussed above.
A prime example is the word “oil”. Many students have a hard time saying this word, and find themselves stumbling over its pronunciation. It’s often easier to insert an /ə/ (or “uh”) sound and separate it into two syllables, saying /ɔɪ.jəɫ/. This is also a very common pronunciation in North American speech, so it’s easier to say and a very natural and native pronunciation.
Let’s look at some examples of words that can be split into two syllables in natural speech. ALL of these words are often pronounced as two-syllable words by English speakers, and are therefore much easier to pronounce!
- aɪ.jəɫ: file, mile, pile
- aʊ.wəɫ: owl, towel
- ɔɪ.jəɫ: oil, foil, boil
That is it for this three-part R series! We hope that it has helped you improve your pronunciation of those often tricky yet important R and L sounds. Try the tips that we’ve talked about over the past three posts in this series and see if you can apply them to some of your trickier R-words!
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