Rhoticity — or how we use the /r/ sound in English — is key to understanding different English accents. There are many varieties of English, which can be divided into two categories: rhotic and non-rhotic. English is rhotic if it uses the /r/ sound and non-rhotic when the /r/ is dropped.
A bit abstract, so let’s use an example. Consider the word “car.” In General American English (rhotic), this is pronounced /kɑr/. Meanwhile, in Standard Southern British English (non-rhotic), it’s pronounced and /kɑː/ (i.e. there is no /r/ sound at the end of the word.)
A simple enough distinction. So American English is rhotic, while British English is non-rhotic, right? Wrong! In fact, there are several exceptions. First, let’s explore how and why the /r/ sound differs on the two sides of the Atlantic, before diving deeper into the complexities of rhoticity.
Let’s Go Back In Time…
Historically speaking, all varieties of English were at one point rhotic. This seems obvious when we look at English spelling. For instance, why would the word “car” have an “r” in it unless, at some point in history, there was an /r/ sound pronounced there? Words that maintain the /r/ sound are more historically “conservative” (meaning they’ve conserved older forms of pronunciations). Meanwhile, those that have dropped the /r/ sound are more “innovative” (meaning they’ve created new pronunciation patterns from older forms).
This split between rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciation has its origins in London in the 1850s. Working-class speakers began dropping the /r/ sound at the ends of words. Back then, this was considered lazy, vulgar and an undesirable way of speaking. Over time though, the change spread. It soon made its way through all levels of the social strata in South East England and beyond. It reached the Midlands, the north of England and Wales, and became part of the standard way of speaking.
So what about North America? Well, most of the colonizers who took English across the Atlantic left Britain before the change took hold. North America was far removed from Britain, geographically and socially. At the time, there was also very little communication between the two regions (no Skype back then!) and so North American English maintained the /r/ sound. The vast majority of American English remains rhotic to this day.
But the story doesn’t end there. There were pockets of so-called “r-dropping” in the United States, too. Most notably in some Northeastern cities (New York and Boston, for example), in the American South, as well as in African American Vernacular English. This occurred after English had been strongly established in the US, and was entirely independent of the “r-dropping” that took place in England.
How Do Things Stand Today?
While “r-dropping” spread to most of England over the 19th and 20th centuries, it wasn’t fully established in the South West of England and didn’t reach Scotland at all. This means the South West — Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall — and Scotland still often exhibit rhotic English.
The variety of English spoken in Scotland was already quite different from other kinds of British English. It’s less surprising then, that the Scottish accent remained rhotic. The difference is more striking in the South West of England, where the English spoken isn’t noticeably very different from other kinds of southern English.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the general standard in British English (except in Scotland) is for non-rhoticity. Any diversion from this tends to be registered by native speakers as vulgar or undesirable… just like “r-dropping” was considered vulgar in the mid-19th century. Weirdly though, in the United States, the exact opposite is true. Rhoticity (maintaining historical /r/ sounds) is standard. This means those who speak non-rhotic English (in this case, deviating from the standard) are considered to be less educated, lazy, or lower class. Oh, the irony!
This is a great example of how linguistic changes can have a social impact. Their connotations go beyond pronunciation, taking on social meaning. Here we have 2 opposing social views of the same phenomenon in 2 different countries where the same language is spoken. Interesting, right?
Rhoticity In Other Kinds Of English
While we can make generalizations about how rhoticity is used, it’s not quite as simple as saying one that one version of English is rhotic while another isn’t. However, whether or not a native speaker is rhotic or non-rhotic is still a good indicator of what kind of English you’re hearing. It can help you pinpoint their specific variety of English.
And what about English beyond the United States and Britain? Generally speaking, South African English, Australian English and New Zealand English are considered non-rhotic. English spoken in Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada and the Caribbean is usually rhotic. But as ever, beware: there will always be exceptions!