Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Rhotic consonant

Rhotics, or "R"-like sounds, are non-lateral liquids. This class of sounds is difficult to characterise phonetically, though most of them share some acoustic peculiarities, most notably a lowered third formant in their sound spectrum. However, "being r-like" is a strangely elusive feature, and the very same sounds that function as rhotics in some systems may pattern with fricatives, semivowels or even stops in others. The most typical rhotic sounds found in the worlds languages are the following:

Many languages, e.g. Russian or Italian, use trilled rhotics. In the English-speaking world, the stereotyped (if not actually very common) Scottish rrrrolled [r] is famous. Rare kinds of trills include Czech r^ (fricative trill) and Welsh rh (voiceless trill).

A bilabial trill (sometimes represented as "brrr...") can be made with both lips, but is hardly ever used as a speech segment (there are one or two examples of such use worldwide).
Tap or flap (these terms refer to very similar articulations): Not unlike a trill, but involving just one brief interruption of airflow. In many languages taps are used as reduced variants of trills, especially in fast speech. Note, however, that in Spanish, for example, taps and trills contrast, as in pero ("but") versus perro ("dog"). In American English flaps do not function as rhotics but are realisations of intervocalic apical stops ([t] or [d], e.g. in city or butter).

  • Alveolar or retroflex approximant, as in most accents of English (with minute differences): The front part of the tongue approaches the upper gum, or the tongue-tip is curled back towards the roof of the mouth ("retroflexion"). No or little friction can be heard, and there is no momentary closure of the vocal tract.

  • Uvular or velar approximant or fricative: The back of the tongue approaches the soft palate or the uvula. Standard French, German or Danish [r]'s are variants of this type of rhotic. If fricative, the sound is often impressionistically described as harsh or grating.

  • In broad transcription rhotics are usually symbolised as [r] unless there are two or more types of rhotic in the same language. The International Phonetic Alphabet has a full set of different symbols which can be used whenever more phonetic accuracy is required (e.g. an upside-down r for the alveolar approximant, and [R] for the uvular trill).

    See also: rhotic (accents of English).