Rhotic Vowels 5. The Special Case of Vocalic R This is the vowel in words like bird, learn, nerd, sir Symbol:  (schwar) or  MacKay prefers ; Ill stick with it, but youll see both symbols in use. Some phoneticians distinguish stressed  or  of [bd] (bird) from the unstressed vowel of [b] (butter). We will not differentiate these
sounds Ill try to stick with . Theres a very important term that applies to the sound quality of vocalic /r/ in words like bird, learn, etc. as they are spoken in General American. This type of vowel is called rhotic. (Note: the squiggle (tilde) on  and  means rhotic.) Rhotic (General American): Nonrhotic (British RP):
The term rhotic also applies to consonantal /r/ (rabbit red, rain, etc.). The term rhotic is a reference to sound quality, not articulation if it sounds like the vowel of (General American) bird, then its rhotic; if it sounds like the /r/ of robot, then its rhotic. Articulation of // Classified as a mid-central. Not exactly inaccurate, but the articulatory facts are more complicated than this. There are two very different articulatory postures that perfectly
good, perceptually indistinguishable rhotic vowels: retroflex and bunched. Most speakers appear to use both retroflex and bunched: compare tongue postures for dirt vs. girl. Tendency is to use retroflex for /d/ and bunched for /g/. (Why might this be?) Articulation of // (contd) Which posture (retroflex or bunched) would you expect to be used for words like sir, learn, nerd, turtle,
zircon, sure German? Which posture (retroflex or bunched) would you expect to be used for words like curb, girder, kernel, gurney, Kirsten? Are retroflex and bunched variants of // members of the same phoneme class or are they distinct phonemes?
One more rhotic fact: Rhotic sounds can be wicked hard to learn. Rhotic sounds are auditorily (i.e., perceptually) very distinctive; theres a specific acoustic feature that is seen always and only for rhotic sounds, so  is rarely confused with other sounds. But, the articulatory trick that produces this rhotic quality is hard to find. This explains why kids say wabbit, for rabbit, wed for red, and [ln] for [ln] (learn). 1. Rhotic sounds ([r, ]) are typically among the last sounds
acquired by kids learning English (and other languages with rhotic sounds) typically around age 7 or so (with a lot of variability). SLPs can spend a lot of time with [r, ]. 2. Rhotic sounds are on a very short list of sounds that can remain problematic into adulthood. 3. Rhotic sounds also tend to be very difficult for adults trying to learn English as a 2nd language if the native tongue does not include rhotic sounds and there are lots of languages without rhotic sounds. Most
languages do not have rhotic sounds. What is the specific acoustic feature that is seen always and only for rhotic sounds, giving  such a distinctive sound quality? Whats different about the ? (Hint: Pay attention to the F3.) Retroflex [r] (Note that only a portion of the tongue is shown here.)
Note the low freq F3 during the [r]. uh r ae
(Slide courtesy of Steve Tasko) Bunched [r] (Note that only a portion of the tongue is shown here.) Note the low freq F3 during the [r]. (Slide courtesy
of Steve Tasko) uh r ae Two very different tongue (and lip) postures, but: (a) similar formants, (b) similar rhotic sound quality.
All three tongue postures are retroflex, but also quite different. Note similar rhotic sound quality in all three. This is done with a model here, but you see the same kind of variability in real speakers. What should we make of this? 1. Is there a way to produce  (or [r])? The case of [,r] is the most obvious, but this is true of all vowels and most (maybe all) consonants. Descriptions in phonetics texts are just a guide. 2. What kind of luck might you have trying to teach [,r] by giving a child (or adult) advice about tongue or lip placement?
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