Rhoticity in English is the pronunciation of the rhotic consonant /r/ by speakers of certain varieties of English. For example, in isolation, a rhotic English speaker pronounces the words hard and butter as /ˈhɑːrd/ and /ˈbʌtər/, whereas a non-rhotic speaker “drops” the /r/ sound, pronouncing them as /ˈhɑːd/ and /ˈbʌtə/.
English dialects that use a hard /r/ include South West England, Scotland, Ireland, and most of the United States and Canada. Non-rhotic dialects are found in England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In the U.S., non-rhotic varieties depend on an array of factors such as region, age, social class, ethnicity, or the degree of formality when speaking.
In England, the loss of the hard /r/ began sporadically during the mid-15th century. By the mid-18th century, though /r/ was still pronounced in most environments, it was frequently dropped. By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety. Colonization of countries like Australia and South Africa happened after England had become more fully non-rhotic.
In the British Council clip below, Shakespearean actor, Ben Crystal, presents two readings from the opening monologue of Romeo and Juliet – one in the accent of contemporary British English (Received Pronunciation), and the other in a simulated accent of Shakespeare’s day; the same accent that began arriving on North American shores in the early 1600s. Take special note of the hard /r/ in the latter. The comparisons begin around 1:40 in the six-minute clip.
During America’s early history as a nation, the loss of rhotic /r/ in British English influenced eastern and southern American port cities that still held close connections to England after the Revolutionary War. This caused America’s more established, upper-class pronunciation to become non-rhotic while the westward-expanding U.S. remained rhotic. Non-rhotic varieties are most apparent in the Boston, Rhode Island, and New York accents, as well as the southern accents of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Louisiana.
American non-rhotic varieties shouldn’t be mistaken for an accent known as the Trans-Atlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent; a largely cultivated manner of speaking most noticeable in Hollywood films during the 1930s and 40s. When one listens to the speech patterns of America’s old East Coast moneyed class – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William F. Buckley, and Katharine Hepburn – it doesn’t sound like a typical American accent, but it’s not really British either. That’s because it’s fake. The “accent” or “diction” was taught in elite boarding schools and acting studios to affect a mix of American and non-rhotic British pronunciation. The result was a posh-sounding American accent no one naturally used unless “educated.”
After the Civil War, centers of wealth and political power shifted with fewer cultural connections to the old colonial and British elites. This included a cultural movement toward rhotic speech that accelerated after WWII. In the world of entertainment, the Trans-Atlantic accent fell out of popularity and film actors like Katharine Hepburn mysteriously lost their upper-class accents mid-career. This was also reflected in the national standard of radio and television where popular TV hosts like Johnny Carson hailed from the Midwest. In the eastern United States, the accent trend is reversing where rhoticism has re-asserted itself resulting in the cultural loss of distinctive accents familiar to many older Americans.
If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in learning why Americans say /zee/ instead of /zed/ for the letter Z, how rebracketing changes a word’s pronunciation, or the history of Johnson’s Dictionary published in 1755.
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