Do you pronounce your ars or your ahs?
One of the most salient differences between different varieties of English—most famously between the standard, prestige varieties of North America and those of most of the rest of the English speaking world—concerns rhoticity. Even if you’ve never heard the term, or given any particular thought to the phenomenon, I can almost guarantee that you’ll recognise it.
Rhoticity has to do with a sound change which began to affect some English varieties in the fifteenth century and then had its main period of fast expansion in the eighteenth century. This sound change deleted an /r/ (by then already pronounced in different ways in different dialects) in coda position—in layman’s terms, in all positions except before a vowel (for this reason linguists also sometimes use the term ‘nonprevocalic r’ to refer to the /r/s affected by this change). It left some traces on the pronunciation of the preceding vowel, lengthening it and for some vowels also changing their quality. This sound change has affected some varieties of English, such as British RP, but not others, such as General American—the two types are then referred to as non-rhotic and rhotic varieties respectively. The difference should be clear if you compare typical GA and RP pronunciations of words like ‘sister’, ‘car’ and ‘work’:
In each case, the GA pronunciation preserves some relatively r-like gesture in the position where historically there was an /r/: a ‘retroflex’ gesture, involving curling the tongue-tip back towards the hard palate, which is relatively similar to the GA pronunciation of /r/ as a consonant before a vowel. By contrast, the RP pronunciation has no such r-like gestures: in ‘work’, the trace of the historical /r/ is shown by the fact that vowel is lengthened and has a different quality than it once had (as shown by the spelling, this word would once have had an ‘o’-like sound, perhaps [ɔ] or [o]); in ‘car’ the only trace is the lengthening of the vowel; and in ‘sister’, no trace remains at all.
The distribution of this sound change in different dialects is actually much more complicated than just American English vs. British English varieties. In the UK, it originally affected a series of varieties in the South East of England, the Midlands, the North of England (excluding some areas in the North West), and most of Wales—that is, the English spoken in these areas became non-rhotic. This left Scottish English, Irish English, and the varieties spoken in the West Country and some of the North West of England as rhotic varieties. However, the variety that has become most prestigious, at least in England—meaning that it has become associated with financial and political success and influence—is RP, which happens to be a non-rhotic variety. Because of its prestige, RP has exerted a lot of influence on other varieties in the UK, and as a result rhoticity has been consistently retreating into smaller and smaller regions. In some of the regions it was once completely general, such as the West Country, rhoticity is now primarily only found in the speech of older speakers, as young people are switching more to eastern, non-rhotic pronunciations.
Almost the inverse picture is found in North America. Here, immigrants from different parts of the UK brought different varieties with them: some rhotic, and some non-rhotic. Non-rhotic varieties were particularly well-established in the Southern States of the US and in New York City. However, the variety which has gained the most prestige in the US and Canada happens to be a rhotic one. As a result, the areas which preserve non-rhoticity have long been shrinking, often leaving older speakers with non-rhotic pronunciations while younger generations switch to rhotic ones.
These differences in the sociolinguistic and historical status of rhoticity in North America and the UK often make themselves felt in speakers’ creative and socially marked uses. As African American Vernacular English is a non-rhotic variety, in contrast to the prestige norm, speakers can choose to spell words in a way which indicates non-rhotic pronunciations to indicate that AAVE is the variety they speak: consider book titles like The Savvy Sistahs by Brenda Jackson, track titles like Whateva Man by Redman, or the stage name of rap artist DeAndre Cortez Way, Soulja Boy. This may be completely lost on speakers of British English varieties, for whom the non-rhotic pronunciation is the prestige norm.
Nevertheless, non-rhotic spellings are also used in a creative way by speakers to communicate social information in the non-rhotic parts of the UK. However, here, the subtle difference is that such spellings do not point towards any specific variety spoken by the writer, and so don’t carry any particular ethnic or regional connotations: instead, they work simply by subverting the arbitrary, prestige orthographic norm. What connotations they carry thus have more to do with social background and attitudes to education and authority than they do with ethnicity.
There’s lots more to say about the history and sociolinguistics of rhoticity in English, so I may return to it in a future post. For the time being, though, I’ll leave you with a hint about another interesting, related phenomenon: if you’d call something that tasted like oranges ‘organgey’, what would you call something that tasted like banana?