An Introduction to R-Colored Vowels

Jul 27, 2020

An Introduction to R-Colored Vowels


Did you know the American R sound can be both a consonant and a vowel? It's a bit confusing, but this video will teach you the basics of the Consonant R /ɹ/ versus the Vowel R. If you want to sound more like a native American English speaker, you need to master the R-colored vowels!

(Video Transcript)


The R sound in American English is somewhat unique. It is probably the most difficult sound to pronounce in American English, and it can be both a consonant and a vowel. That is a little...confusing. But don’t worry. I’m going to explain it to you in this video because it will help you with your pronunciation to know the basics about the consonant R versus the vowel R.


The American R consonant sound

First, the consonant R. When the letter R comes at the beginning of a word or syllable, like in the words right and arrange, or when it is part of a consonant cluster - when two consonants are next to each other in the same syllable - like the tr cluster in tree or the gr cluster in green, then the R is considered to be a consonant. And you will see this IPA symbol /ɹ/. Or you may see this IPA symbol /r/. Technically, this symbol /r/ is for the trilled R, which does not occur in American English. But some dictionaries will use this symbol /r/ to represent the American R /r/ because it is easier to write than an upside down R. 


The R sound as a vowel

Now the vowel R.  When the letter R comes after a vowel in the same syllable, like in the words bird, year, and forward, the R functions as a vowel, and the vowel plus the R combine into one sound. I’m going to pronounce these words slowly, and I want you to listen to the vowel + the R sound. Biiiirrrrd. Yeeeeaaarrrr. Fooorrrrwoooorrrd. Now I’ll say each sound individually: B IR D. Y EAR. F OR W ER D. The vowel and the letter R combined into one vowel sound. These vowels have a special name - they’re called R colored vowels. 


You should feel movement in your articulators as you say an R-colored vowel because R-colored vowels are made up of two sounds: the vowel plus the R sound. EAR. OORRR. But when you say the vowel ER, like in bird, this R-colored vowel sounds exactly like the R consonant /ɹ/. The biggest difference between the pronunciation of the ER vowel and the R consonant is lip rounding. The R consonant will have more lip rounding than the ER vowel.


American R consonant and ER vowel

Let’s take a closer look at the R consonant, like in the word right, and the ER vowel, like in the word bird


Here is the word right in slow motion. Notice how my lips round into a tight circle for the R consonant. Now watch the word bird in slow motion. My lips flare out for the ER vowel, but they aren’t as rounded as they were for the R consonant. Here are the sounds side by side. The left is the R consonant, and the right is the ER vowel. Notice how the R consonant has more lip rounding than the ER vowel.


I hope this video helped to explain the R colored vowels! Now let’s get started with the details of each R-colored vowel, starting with the ER, like in bird and mother.