more on orthographic r

Language Log has a discussion by Mark Liberman, reacting to a BBC News Magazine article on whether a certain country should be called Burma or Myanmar, that is relevant to our on-going observations about the contrast between 'r' in BrE orthography (spelling) versus its Received Pronunciation in post-vocalic (after vowel) contexts. The upshot is:

Leaving aside the notion that the local pronunciation is a "corruption", the BBC's discussion omits the most interesting part of the story, at least from an American point of view. They should have asked John Wells, whose discussion of the question I linked to at the time ("Myanmar is mama", 10/15/2007). And the explanations that I've heard and read this time around — yesterday on NPR, for example — again miss the key point. So here it is.

There is no 'r'!

Never was. Not in Burma and not in Myanmar. The 'r' is an orthographic imposition of post-rhotic British colonialists.
Click on the links to read more.


  1. Oh, but there *is* an "r" in Myanmar -- the second letter!

    Only it's pronounced "y" now, since /r/ and /j/ merged quite a while ago in Burmese (as I understand it). (If that letter is pronounced at all; I've seen /mænma/ as a pronunciation too, I think.)

  2. A nameless student-friend from the eastern part of northern England (and therefore a non-rhotic) had to transcribe a speech by Elizabeth II, queen of the UK, and was rash enough to run it past me for a once-over. I accused her of making the queen rhotic. When she wanted to show HM saying /ɑ/ she wrote /ar/. When I remonstrated, she pointed out that that the queen was not rhotic but posh.

  3. One of the articles says that the r signifies a long (in length) vowel. (Though I can't find it now.) Is this correct?

    Also, I recall reading (again, not sure where) that the vowel plus r is pronounced like the a in father. But then you discussed here er and um being pronounced alike. Which is distinctly different than the vowel I use in father. Is father pronounced differently? Is there more than one vowel sound, with the r only signifying length?

  4. Yes Ellen, the 'r' tends to intrude in BrE spelling when the vowel is long. (Note that 'long' here means that it's pronounced for longer, not that it's a different vowel.)

    Er is like uh, rather than um, but both of those can vary a lot in their pronunciation. It's just a way of representing a long, usually middle-of-the-mouth vowel used in hesitating. It is usually different from the 'a' in father--and very different if you're from Boston. But the 'a' in non-Boston father would be more similar to the 'ar' in car, I think. I must always caution that I'm not a phonetician, so my judg(e)ments should be taken as approximations!

  5. A British feller in America is a fella. If he was posh or esteemed he would be a fellow. If he moved to Egypt he might be a fellah.

  6. Some AmE dialects have a rhotic version of "feller" as well; used in the same way as the "fella" that mollymooly mentions. (I would say that both are in a very different register than "fellow" in AmE, which seems to match what mollymooly wrote about BrE.)

  7. I've gotta say, most of the proclamations about British pronunciation here are completely alien to me.

    "Feller" is definitely pronounced with an 'r' on the end. I've also always pronounced "er" like "to err is human...", which is very different from "uh" and "um".

  8. Sure, there are plenty of BrE dialects that have post-vocalic [r].

  9. Thanks for clarifying the matter, I've been wondering about that as in Russian the country in question used to be called /'b i: r m a/ and now is called Myanma /m j a n m a/, so I was wondering where the r in the English name came from.

  10. I have been getting all political commenting on the Language Log site, so I will leave that there. My first exposure as an AmE speaker to the rhotic / non-rhotic dichotomy in the US was in the Kinks song "Shangri-La", where Ray Davies rhymed words like "car", "hard", and "yard" with "Shangri-La" with a rhotic pronunciation. Since Ray grew up in London, I am guessing he tends towards the non-rhotic in his speech and that the pronunciation in the song was deliberate.

  11. I meant to type "dichotomy in the UK".

  12. your so lucky you can speak 'r'.. because my niece cannot speak r.. huhu.. sad

  13. But doesn't the R in RP BrE "part" mean that the type of vowel is different from that in "pat", not just the length?

  14. Paul, your comment reminded me of how the British pronounce the word "pasta", the first "a" like the "a" in AmE "patty" but even more so. It is the "a" sound that was often employed when making fun of how Americans speak so I found it ironic that in this case Americans pronounce pasta as if it were spelled in BrE "parsta" while the British use the obnoxious sounding "anh" sounding "a".

  15. Obnoxious or not, the BrE pronunciation of pasta is closer to the Italian.

  16. Obnoxious or not, I didn't know how else to describe the a sound I meant. I think the AmE pronunciation of pasta may be more near to the Italian pronunciation.

  17. Ohh - don't you just love the passion, of small minded people :)

    Now I know my accent is obnoxious to someone, I will work harder to keep it that way :)

  18. OK. Now I have got over feeling insulted by that, I hope, thoughtless choice of words.

    Pasta is pronounced differently on different parts of Italy. Like every other country, Italians have a range of different accents and pronunciations.

  19. The twangy "a" sound?


  20. And because I'm afraid of putting my foot farther into my mouth. Nevermind. I apologize for any offense taken.

    It's a strong "a" sound that apparently Americans use more than the British, though with that one word, not.

    Whereas if Americans were to attempt a British accent of some kind they would very likely use a lot of the long "a" sounds or long vowel sounds in general, the drop jaw "a" sound or "ar" that sounds stereotypically posh or Americans might even say snooty. But there I may have gone and done it again.

    Apparently I am no diplomat. Nor am I particularly passionate or small minded.

  21. Anne: it's always dangerous to generalise, and especially tricky when you're trying to convey sounds in writing, but I believe I understand what you're saying.

    Now, I'm no expert (just an interested observer) but what seems to me to be going on is that there are actually three vowel sounds in play here, all of them written with the letter "a".

    First we have the sound in BrE RP "cat" or AmE "patty", which (I think) is the IPA "æ".

    Then there's the sound in BrE RP "bath", which I don't know the IPA for, so we'll call that "aa".

    But there's also another sound, which – being from the North of England – I tend to think of as a "simple a", and which sounds to me like the sound used in Italian: a short vowel somewhere between the other two.

    My impression is that many Americans, in attempting to give the word "pasta" an Italian pronunciation (and why they feel that's necessary is another matter) are hypercorrecting away from "pæstuh" and producing something closer to "paastuh" – which to my ears sounds not only no more accurate, but affected to boot.

    I think you're right in saying that some in the UK pronounce pasta as "pæsta", but I suspect it's fewer than you'd think: many English accents don't use that sound at all, and even among Oxbridge educated speakers (whom you'd expect to sound very RP) it seems to be being replaced with the short "a" sound.

    Like I say, though, I'm no expert, so take all of that for what it's worth.

  22. Related but somewhat off-topic: my English husband and I recently were in the States for two weeks. Especially while in New Mexico, I kept noticing how whiny accents sounded to my ear. Had they always sounded that way but I'd never noticed, living in the US all my life (until 5+ years ago)? Am I now becoming THAT accustomed to Brit-speech-sounds?

    Has this happened to other American ex-pats?


  23. Thank you both David and Janet for rescuing the conversation!

    It is indeed very difficult to describe different sounds. Compounding this difficulty, I am unfamiliar with the notation. Also I think there may be more a sounds then just three.

    Thinking about it more, I am beginning to doubt that the "anh" -that, say, Chandler Bing's girlfriend in the sitcom Friends uses, is the "a" that some English use in pasta - they don't use that sound at all, but they do use a different "a" sound there. Like the "a" in cat, I guess. And I think I was mistaken too, in that we use an open sound, like the "o" sound in pot in pasta. What you are writing as aa, I think? But it's not particularly drawn out. And it is just the way I've always said it and heard it here. I don't usually think of it as being an adopted foreign word. I only checked to hear how it is pronounced in Italian, because curious whether it was indeed pronounced with the "a" sound of cat. (It didn't sound like it to me.)

    Do Americans tend toward the nasal where as English tend more toward the gutteral?

    Janet, it seems very likely that having emmersed yourself in BrE, when you return, you would hear AmE with new ears. Your impressions are legitimate.

    A dear friend of mine, I realized a few years ago, sounds a great deal like Ernie of Sesame Street. And Chandler Bing's girlfriend sounds a lot like Bert from Sesame Street. Her laugh is exactly the same as Bert's.

  24. David Up North, in order for Americans to be hypercorrecting away from the "pæstuh" pronunciation, we would have to have that proununciation. I don't think that prounciation is anywhere close to common enough here for any pronunication to be a hypercorrection for it.

    Nor do Americans generally, in my experience, pronounce pasta with the long vowel of the RP "bath". I do think such a pronunciation sounds affected. But while the vowel is the same or similar soundwise to that, it's short.

  25. Potentially helpful for this discussion: Merriam-Webster definition of pasta, which includes two different pronunciations you can listen to.

  26. Anne: "And I think I was mistaken too, in that we use an open sound, like the "o" sound in pot in pasta. What you are writing as aa, I think? But it's not particularly drawn out."

    That's more or less where I was going, yeah. I wasn't trying to describe the length of the sound so much as the "breadth" of it, if that makes sense. It's difficult because, to me, the "o" in pot sounds nothing like any kind of "a" sound. I appreciate that it does for (most?) Americans, though. I see in Ruth's link to Merriam-Webster that their first pronunciation of pasta has the vowel sound notated as the same as the vowel in pot.

    Ellen K: the pronunciation I was trying to describe with "pæstuh" is the second one in Ruth's link.

    Gosh, this is tricky, isn't it?

  27. David, I think you misunderstood me. Though I honestly can't see how you got the idea I don't understand what sound æ represents. I wouldn't have posted what I did if I didn't know the sound I was commenting on.

  28. P.S. Ah, perhaps you didn't realize I'm American and thus misunderstood my "we"? We = Americans. Here = America. Or, more specifically, the middle part of the U.S.

  29. Ellen K, there's certainly some confusion. You seemed to be saying that that pronunciation was very uncommon in America. I was pointing out that, since it was provided as a pronunciation option in an American dictionary, it can't be that uncommon. I know I've heard it.

  30. Our hostess will be cross that a post on R has morphed into a discussion on A.

    My understanding is as follows:

    For many Americans, the same vowel occurs in PALM as in LOT; this vowel is also used in "pasta" and for the A in many other exotic words.

    In Britain, the PALM vowel is longer than the American vowel, while the LOT vowel is short but rounded. LOT occurs only for letter O (except after /w/ as in "wan", "squad"). Maybe PALM is too long for "pasta", and so the vowel of TRAP must serve for "pasta" even though it is a poorer approximation of the Italian than the American PALM vowel.

    American spelling alterations such as Tanya>Tonya and Sandra>Sondra look odd to cisatlanticans

    @David up North: what English words do you pronounce with the "simple a" sound you mention?

  31. "You say tomato and I say tomato, let's call the whole thing off."

    Actually, the a sound in BrE tomato is similar to AmE pasta. I assumed that the second pronunciation of pasta in the dictionary was maybe a nod to the BrE pronunciation. I don't think I've ever heard it here, and I think I would notice. (Though I have not been everywhere in the US.) Also, is that second pronunciation the BrE pronunciation? Because I recall the BrE a sound in pasta being more pronounced than that.

    Mollymooly- I hope that our hostess will not be too cross, because it is related, isn't it-- vowel sounds? We were discussing how the r can indicate the vowel sound preceding it in BrE.

    The vowel sound of palm and pot are different to my ears I think - and in my speech. I wonder if the l changes the a sound in AmE in a similar way that the r does for BrE. The a of palm sounds more like pawlm a hint of an aw sound, a slightly extended vowel sound, whereas pot doesn't have any hint of w and is brief.

    Wan and palm have the same a sound maybe, and pot and squad have the same, but not wan and squad. But I see what your getting at, the sound in BrE wan and squad is like our AmE vowel sound in pot and lot.

    I know the rounded o sound of which you speak of BrE pot and lot. It is very different than the AmE sounds in those words. So, it would be more helpful to say that AmE pronounce the first a in pasta with the vowel sound of BrE wan or squad?

    However, that vowel sound that AmE use in pasta sounds like a common vowel sound in BrE to me, maybe a little shorter. Is it really so rare?

  32. Or, wait, are you saying that BrE use that rounded o sound (not the American o sound) in wan and squad too?

  33. Mollymooly:@David up North: what English words do you pronounce with the "simple a" sound you mention?

    Well, "pasta" for one. Also "bath" and "cat". Fairly typical for northern England.

    Anne:I assumed that the second pronunciation of pasta in the dictionary was maybe a nod to the BrE pronunciation. I don't think I've ever heard it here, and I think I would notice. (Though I have not been everywhere in the US.) Also, is that second pronunciation the BrE pronunciation? Because I recall the BrE a sound in pasta being more pronounced than that.
    No, the second pronunciation is certainly American: check out their entry for "tomato" to see how they note the BrE pronunciation there. I assume (though I could be wrong) that, being placed second, it's less common than the first, but not so rare or regional as to warrant being noted as such.

    Allowing for accents (in as much as you can do that!) it is the same as a BrE RP pronunciation, I think. How pronounced the sound is would depend entirely on the person speaking – there's a lot of variation.

    As to wan/squad/pot/lot, we get into the problem I mentioned with generalising: those sounds vary a good deal within AmE and within BrE, so it's a perilous business comparing one to t'other.

  34. David said: As to wan/squad/pot/lot, we get into the problem I mentioned with generalising: those sounds vary a good deal within AmE and within BrE, so it's a perilous business comparing one to t'other.

    As an example of the range of sounds available ....

    I used to live in the Wolverhampton (UK) and as an outsider I could differentiate between Black Country and Birmingham accents - a distance of about 20 miles. Locals could differentiate between Wolverhampton, Dudley and Walsall accents - each less than 10 miles apart. In that area we also had a number of Asian speakers and their pronunciation was completely different again.

    Since then I have lived in Manchester, London, the south midlands and now on the south coast. In each area there is a significantly different accent, with different pronunciations and (to some extent) different 'shapes' for vowels.

    To put that in some sort of perspective. England is about the same are as Pennsylvania (or so my wife and I) the places I listed cover about half of that area :) I haven't really lived in the north of the country of the south west, both areas with strong regional accents and pronunciation.

    Even in the US - my family in Pennsylvania pronounce things differently to the people I visited in Texas and Washington state.

    I came to the conclusion a long time ago that there isn't a right or wrong way to pronounce anything,
    instead there are about as many different ways as there are people. So long as you are understood by your listeners - it is a right way to pronounce it :)

  35. I've been away, but am still going to stay out of this one. The pasta problem has come up in the comments previously.

  36. We American's are aware that the rest of the world exists. A pronuniciation being in a dictionary from an American publisher does not prove it is an American pronunciation. And, even if they did include it because some Americans say it, there's a HUGE gap between being used enough for inclusion in a dictionary as a secondary pronunciation, verus being used enough for what you claim to be true: that those of us who use the other pronunciation are hypercorrectiong for the æ pronunciation. Plus, the hypercorrection theory implies a third pronunciation in English. Which I haven't seen evidence for.

    Personally, I think you would to best not to psychoanalyse Americans as far as why we use the pronunciation we do. Honestly, we pronounce it that way because that's how we heard it pronounced and thus how we learned it. Same as most words.

    Now, I don't know the origin of the different pronunciations, nor do I know exactly what the range of sounds for that vowel is in Italian. But you clearly weren't commenting on the origins of the pronunciation, but why people pronounce it that way in the present.

  37. Ellen K. - you hit the nail pretty much on the head for me. Most of these pronunciation discussions tend to be a waste of time, they go around and around in circle and don't actually get anywhere.

    They just finish up as 'I say it this way and you say it that way, and there is nothing wrong with that'.

    As to original pronunciation - in my view chasing those is pretty much a waste of time. English (no matter who speaks it) is a living language and it changes.

    At the moment we are hassling around about Anglo American pronunciation. In 15 years time -Chinese/Indian pronunciation will be more important.

  38. One thought on why the alternate pronunciation of "pasta" is shown in an American dictionary is that the "harder A" sound is sometimes used in the deep south (or at least when someone is faking a southern accent, wether it is accurate or not)
    Think of Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies saying "Pasta." I generally think of it ironically enough, closer to the BrE pronumciation.
    But I think it is safe to say that 90% (if not higher) of AmE speakers say it the same way with the "AH" sound.

  39. the thing about American, and British, vowels, in contrast to Italian ones, is that they are almost always dipthongs. Italian vowels are NEVER dipthongs, unless they're actually paired with another vowel.

    So Americans don't really say "pæstuh" or "paastuh"; we say the a as if it slides between your "aa" and almost an "uh" sound. For an Italian, there's no doubt about it -- short sound, no movement.

    To British ears, that sounds more like their very short-voweled "pastuh"; to American ears it sounds very different indeed. To American ears, the British way sounds like the a in bat. Britons would deny this, but it's what Americans hear.

    That pronunciation used to be common in America, which is why it's still in the dictionaries, but about forty years ago it started to change, with the sophistication of food tastes. People sometimes don't realize that even forty years ago pasta was exotic food in America (and in Britain, in a form that an Italian would recognize, at least), unless you were Italian-American. Forty years ago an Italian restaurant outside of New York would be unlikely to use garlic in their food, for instance -- and Britain was even worse.

    I can remember the change. And, going along with David Up North a little, it was indeed a matter of sophistication -- we were instructed (by whom? I don't know; Julia Child? My mother.) to say "paastuh" instead of "pæstuh". I remember these discussions clearly, along with instructions on how to twirl it around your fork in the bowl of your spoon, which was thought to be much classier than the old way of breaking it up into two-inch lengths before cooking. FRESH pasta was unheard of, of course, and as would have been more exotic and "gourmet" than shark-fin soup or live insects.

    In parts of the American South you will still hear something that sounds like "pay-us-tuh", with the first a being somewhere between "pay" and "pie".

  40. Wow, that previous pasta discussion touched upon many of the same things we did here.

    My Mom recalls when she was growing up the cleaning lady would say that that night she was going to have, what sounded to my mother like, "a piece of pie" for dinner. She was saying pizza pie.

    It is strange to think how that was exotic and foreign not too long ago, because pizza pie would seem to have replaced apple pie for being American.

    For as long as I've been on the scene, it's been called paasta. Do you really think, fnarf, there was a campaign to change the American pronunciation from Paesta to paasta? It sounds to me very possible that whoever introduced it to the American public, maybe Julia Child, pronounced it paasta and so that's how we've been saying it ever since.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)