Friday 9 July 2010


The latest quarterly update of the online OED covers the alphabetical range Rh to rococoesque. John Simpson provides his usual insightful commentary exploring some of the new entries. Ben Zimmer, too, has seized the moment to write about what he calls the “fascinatingly complex entry for a seemingly simple word: rock, used as a verb”.

You will forgive me if I draw attention instead to a coinage of my own.

In 1968, inspired by Labov’s innovative approach to data collection in New York’s department stores, I spent an afternoon in Southampton stopping people in the street and asking them about preferred flavours of ice cream. My covert aim was to elicit the word vanilla and see whether people on the streets of this town pronounced it with a final plain schwa ə, as in most kinds of English, or with an r-coloured ‘schwar’ ɚ. As I expected, I encountered a number of cases of the latter. (I was of course careful to exclude instances where the word was followed by a vowel at the beginning of the next word, the position where it would be normal for English people to use intrusive r.)

The reason for this sudden burst of activity was that I was being pressed for a contribution, any contribution, to the annual Progress Report put out by the Phonetics Laboratory of my Department. I wrote up my findings over the next two days: four-page paperette, job done.

At the time there was no satisfactory word available to describe the kind of pronunciation used in places such as Southampton, in which r is preserved in all positions, as against the more general type of English English in which historical r is lost except immediately before a vowel (as in RP, where farmer is ˈfɑːmə). Some American writers used the term r-ful, but this not only lacked the dignity appropriate for technical terminology but was also susceptible (in England, at least) to very inconvenient confusion with the word awful.

So I invented the word rhotic, with derivatives such as rhoticity, non-rhotic and, for accents like Southampton that additionally impose r-colouring in cases where it is historically unjustified, hyperrhotic.
Since then my coinage has not only been widely taken up but has also had a second meaning added, ‘exhibiting r-colouring’. This has also been made into a noun ‘rhotic’, meaning any kind of r-sound. Here’s Wikipedia.
Rhotics are … generally found to carry out similar phonological functions and have similar phonological features across different languages.

Ladefoged and Maddieson’s book The Sounds of the World’s Languages (Blackwell, 1996), has a chapter entitled Rhotics.
The new OED formulation does not recognize the noun.

Some people did not like my coinage. But it’s too late now. You’re stuck with it.


  1. What are people's reserves about it?

    Did you originally mean /ˈrəʊtɪk/ or /ˈrɒtɪk/? (I suppose the former and naively pronounce it like that myself, but I've heard the latter, too, which makes it somewhat ambiguous when a person is said to have "a rhotic" pronunciation.)

  2. I think jwl was one who disliked it. (If so, I'm sure he'll explain.)
    I have always said ˈrəʊtɪk, and that's what the OED gives.

  3. Ah, I never knew you were the originator of the term. Might JWL's objection have been that rhoticism traditionally referred to /r/ taking the place of another sound, usually /s/, whereas rhotic varieties of Engish don't involve substitution?

  4. Wikipedia's disambiguation entry:

    Rhoticism is a word occasionally encountered when one of the following is intended:

    Rhotacism, difficulty in pronouncing the /r/ sound [the actual entry includes the historic sound changes I associate with the term]

    Rhotacization, the articulation used to produce an r-colored vowel

    Rhoticity, the property that distinguishes rhotic and non-rhotic accents

  5. Is the four-page 'vanilla report' available anywhere? (Gunnel Melchers, am not sure how to find my URL...)

  6. I am one of the editors of the Companion to Phonology (, which will also have a chapter entitled Rhotics, written by Richard Wiese.

  7. I never knew you invented the word 'rhotic'. You should be proud of it.

  8. Lipman, I too was brought up sharp by 'rhoticism' for 'rhotacism', and could have only understood it as Wikipedia's 3rd sense of " Rhoticity, the property that distinguishes rhotic and non-rhotic accents". The unstressed ɪ and ə are perfectly distinct for me, but if the statistical probability of their not being was indeed JWL's objection, it doesn't seem to have turned out to have been a very important one.

    And again like you I agree with the Wikipedia entry for Rhotacism, except that the disambiguation entry or main entry for it does not include the sense that refers to the typically Japanese practice of substituting r for l (or various allophones typical of the Japanese r which give English NSs the impression of being l). Instead they have an entry for Lambdacism, which shockingly for me says for that ''The use of the sound of l for that of r in pronunciation; lallation; as, "Amelican" for "American". This trait is commonly a part of a Japanese accent in English.' It is of course not "commonly a part of a Japanese accent in English", but rather it is typical of various Chinese accents and a good few other accents that are anything but Japanese.

    I certainly agree with John's pronunciation [ˈrəʊtɪk] for this excellent coinage, but -ic does very commonly require an allomorph with a corresponding short vowel preceding the suffix in the morpheme it follows. Hence I suppose [ˈrɒtɪk] is not so surprising.

  9. I'm very interested to hear you invented it. I've always assumed that the occasionally-heard 'yotic' was created by analogy with rhotic. If so, you started a fashion.

  10. I said/ˈrɒtɪk/ till recently when I realized no one else around me said it that way. Does it tend to be pronounced w/ the lower vowel in the US generally?

    Very impressed--OED is almost immortality!

  11. Gunnel: I've scanned it for you, here.

  12. Lifelong Southampton resident9 July 2010 at 12:20

    John, I imagine 1968 was an interesting time to carry out your study of rhoticity in Southampton. In this part of the world, rhoticity has been dying out since the Second World War, and is no longer present in the speech of younger speakers from Southampton.

    I've observed that:
    - for speakers born before WWII, /r/ is either pronounced in all positions, or only pronounced in words of a particular lexical set.

    The /r/ of the NURSE and LETTER set is usually pronounced by these speakers; for the sets NEAR, SQUARE, NORTH, FORCE, CURE, START, /r/ is sometimes preserved, sometimes lost - varies from speaker to speaker.

    - for speakers born from ~1945 to ~1970, as above: the /r/ of the NURSE and LETTER set is usually pronounced by these speakers; for the sets NEAR, SQUARE, NORTH, FORCE, CURE, START, /r/ is sometimes preserved - varies from speaker to speaker. However, for speakers born in the 1950s, /r/ is no longer retroflex, whereas for speakers born before this time, /r/ is always retroflex, regardless of position.

    - for speakers born after ~1970, rhoticity is entirely absent.

    Another interesting feature of how the accent of Southampton has changed is the pronunciation of the BATH vowel:

    - for speakers born before the Second World War, it is usually /a:/; subsequent generations have tended more and more to use /ɑ:/ for this set, although /a:/ is occasionally heard, even among people born in the 1990s.

  13. Superb! I too was unaware that you had coined the term. I always imagined it was much older. Have you any other coinages we might look out for?


  14. Did you coin standard lexical set? Not a one-word lexem, maybe even rather a concept, but still.

  15. It's not that JWL strongly dislikes the term 'rhotic' but that he prefers to describe accents on a scale from high rhoticity or low rhoticity. See his post to an entry to the blog by Graham Pointon at

  16. There's an interesting quotation under NON-RHOTIC: "1996 J. J. SMITH Hist. Study Eng. ii. 37 Keats suffered at the hands of his first reviewers, and one of the grounds of their criticism was his habit of rhyming such pairs as higher : Thalia, thorns : fawns,..[etc.] indicating that his accent was non-rhotic." It really is remarkable how rare such rhymes are in anglophone poetry generally: I read a lot of verse aloud, and rarely have to adjust for such things. They most often come up in light verse, as in this limerick by non-rhotic Brooklynite Isaac Asimov:

    There was a young couple from Florida
    Whose passion grew steadily torrider.
    They were planning to sin
    In a room in an inn:
    Who could wait? So they screwed in the corridor.

  17. How does it feel to be immortal?

    I, too, used /rɒtɪk/ until you corrected me. I blame the Danish pronunciation of "rho" - no diphthong. Pity that /rəʊtɪk/ doesn't allow for erotic puns, though.

  18. I had no idea you had coined the term, John! How wonderful to have invented a word that caught on so rapidly and completely - and usefully!

  19. John Cowan referred to Keats' reviewer criticising rhymes like thorns/fawns. There's probably a convention of some kind against such rhymes. Another humourous example, from Hilaire Belloc:

    A 'Scutcheon hanging lozenge-wise
    And draped in crape appals his eyes
    Upon the mansion's ample door
    To which he wades through heaps of Straw!

    with a footnote

    This is the first and only time
    That I have used this sort of Rhyme

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. You coined the term "Rhotic" eh? I pronounce it as [ˈɹˤɑ.ɾɪʔk], /ˈɹɑ.tɪk/

    Taylor from Minnesota.

  22. How could "r-ful" possibly be confused with "awful"? I didn't think there were any accents that merged THOUGHT and START.

  23. Non-rhotic, father-bother merger and cot-caught merger. Doesn't sound that far-fetched for some forms of AAVE.

  24. I'm grateful, because it's impossible to direct ensembles of American singers without discussions of r-coloring. I use the words "rhotic" and "rhotacise" almost daily.

  25. "R-ful" said by an RP speaker might be interpreted as "awful" if the hearer is, say, Canadian.

  26. my Canadian colleague who told us his child was autistic - we thought he said "artistic".

  27. @ VP:
    Alright, I see what you mean now, but that happens surprisingly little. I'm American (with the FATHER-BOTHER and COT-CAUGHT mergers) and when I hear an RP speaker saying "cart" I never hear it as "cot" or "caught". And I never hear "bard" as "bod" (slang for body). You would think that would happen, but it doesn't for some reason.

  28. As a fully rhotic American, I sometimes run into the trouble of misinterpreting an RP /ə/ as a diaphonemic /ər/ - for example, I could have sworn that there was a Dutch football player named "Heitinger" until I saw that the RP-speaking commentator was actually referring to "Heitinga".

  29. Anonymous #2432, it probably didn't happen because of your expectations. You don't expect the mergers from an RP speaker and you know ɑ: can correspond to your own "plain long a" and to ar.

  30. @ Lipman:
    Yes, I know those things now. But even before I knew them, that kind of thing still didn't happen. There may be some sort of phonetic difference. I'm not sure.

  31. Congratulations indeed. I think it would be only fair to say that "rhoticity" is now a mainstream concept in phonetics and linguistics. I've never found it hard to distinguish from "rhotacism" (which I also use a lot).
    (Or should I say, "the two have never elided for me"?... :) )

  32. Anonymous # 4686, I didn't mean conscious and academically informed expectations.

  33. @Lipman:
    Oh, I see. I'm the same anonymous as before. Why did you change my number? Also why do you care if I'm anonymous? Does this affect you in some way?

  34. I changed the number to show you that there are an undeterminable number of anonymous commenters, and even as a trained linguist, one can't always tell whether two of you are the same. I as a reader of this blog could just ignore anonymous comments, but doesn't it bother you that you're confused with a dozen others all the time?

    I don't care if you give your real name or use a pseudonym. You don't even have to get a Google account; it would do to sign.

  35. Lifelong Resident, I think it's true in general that rhoticity in NURSE is "last to go, first to come". New York City is transitioning from variable rhoticity to pervasive rhoticity, and pretty much everyone too young to have the traditional NURSE-CHOICE merger has a rhotic vowel in NURSE words even if they are fairly non-rhotic otherwise. (As usual in AmE accent discussions, I exclude AAVE.)

  36. Mr Wells: is there a case of preconsonantal /r/ in Greek? If not, your term 'rhotic' would seem inappropriate.

    J Hopkins (PhD, linguistics)

    1. There are plenty of cases of preconsonantal /r/ in Greek, both Ancient and Modern. Even if there weren't, I don't get your logic.

    2. An energetic response, John.


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