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13. non-rhotic accent

A non-rhotic accent, however, does not have the /r/ in final or pre-consonantal positions (this is sometimes known as the post-vocalic /r/, although others use the more accurate term, the non-prevocalic /r/). What this means is that speakers of non-rhotic accents have this rule: if the in the spelling does not occur before a vowel sound, don’t pronounce it. (NOTE: vowel sound, not vowel letter.)

Here are examples of words and phrases where the won’t be pronounced by non-rhotic speakers:

• department
• party pooper
• utter nonsense and balderdash
• Mr Carter, you are so argumentative, aren’t you

Turning back to English, we can say that all English accents were rhotic up until the early MnE period and non-rhoticity was a relatively late development. (Remember, spelling reflects pronunciation in the early MnE period.) What is particularly interesting about the non-prevocalic /r/ is that before it was lost, it affected the vowel preceding it. It did three kinds of things: (1) lengthened the preceding vowel sound; Words like arm, bark and card originally had a short [a] sound (cf. am, back, cad) (2) changed the quality of the vowel sound; Up until about 1600, the vowel sounds in fern, fir and fur were the same as those in pet, pit and put respectively (and of course, the /r/ was pronounced). Using the phonetic alphabet, their pronunciations would have been [fErn], [fIr] and [fUr]. All three vowels began to be ‘coloured’ by /r/, and the vowel quality began to coalesce into [@], so that in 1700, the pronunciations would have been [f@rn], [f@r] and [f@r]  (3) caused diphthongisation. Diphthongs followed by R, though these may be considered to end in /ər/ in rhotic speech, and it is the /ər/ that reduces to schwa as usual in non-rhotic speech: tire said in isolation is [taɪə] and sour is [saʊə].[2] For some speakers, some long vowels alternate with a diphthong ending in schwa, sowear may...
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