The Strange Death of the English R

In one part of Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, the playwright Christopher Marlowe is sent on a mission among the English Catholic exiles in the Low Countries by the spy master Francis Walsingham. As he listens to the speech of an old priest at the English College he starts to notice a subtle defect in his speech:

What he noted in the speech of the speaker was a property that was not of the language of London… Our language is rich in what our orthopeists term the rhotic (I know these things; I was brought up an actor), that is to say our dog sound is a firm roll in words containing the letter r. But this gentleman was weak in it and spoke argument and preacher and Caesar with but a limp tap.
This weak r sound is something that Burgess’s Marlowe continues to notice in the English exiles, and it even goes on to play a role in the plot, as someone’s weak r gives him away as a Jesuit in disguise. I’m not certain what Burgess is implying here, but perhaps it is that the exiles’ pronunciation of the English r has been influenced by being surrounded by louche French speakers, or perhaps by clerical prissiness.

What is strange for a 21st century Englishman to contemplate is that a strong r was once a distinctive trait of English speech, even – especially – of London speech. That certainly isn’t the case today. In most of England – and in many parts of the world that were a part of the British Empire, English is ‘non-rhotic’, with an r only being pronounced when directly preceding a vowel. For some reason, between the late sixteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the terminal r disappeared from English speech of all classes and most regions. Like most linguistic trends, it started in London and spread outwards. In England, the ‘English r‘ is now confined to the West Country, and a few smaller redoubts such as Blackburn, Lancashire. America, Canada, Ireland and, with its different, more heavily rolled r, Scotland, remain resolutely rhotic.

The loss of the terminal r is perhaps the biggest single change in the character of English pronunciation since the great vowel shift. Its pronunciation, or lack thereof, has a defining effect. A few years ago some academics tried to recreate the speech of Richard the Third as they thought it might have sounded. It sounded, they explained, much the English of the East Midlands as it is spoken today. And it did, a bit, but to the English listener, its pronounced rhoticism gave it an oddly celtic flavour.

Some of the most famous lines of poetry sound very different if pronounced in rhotic English. Here is John of Gaunt’s celebrated speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II with the r’s highlighted that would not be pronounced by most English people:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter‘d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

That certainly sounds different, though I couldn’t say that the loss of the r‘s detracts from the poetic effect.In other examples, however, something may be lost with the r‘s. Take the second verse of Marlowe’s own A Passionate Shepherd to his Love:

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

That is an extra four r’s in three lines, and, along with the proliferation of l’s, makes the sound of the lines much more liquid, more trilling, and more imitative of those falls and madrigals of which the shepherd sings.

London English may have been losing its r’s by the late eighteenth century when William Blake wrote, but the intended alliteration of his most famous lines is unmistakable:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night

That burning tiger somehow sounds fiercer and fierier when you pronounce the r’s, no? Although that might depend on how you pronounce them… speaking of which: next post- the Northumbrian r.


4 thoughts on “The Strange Death of the English R

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Where I live, in Maine (USA) the r is mostly dropped. But that’s considered a local “accent” of New England in general. When we are taught to try to speak “without an accent”—as if that’s possible!—we are usually taught to roll the r, but not at the front of the teeth, like the Spanish, nor in the throat, like the French, but somewhere in between. A funny phenomenon occurs when people are trying to remember to speak more “correctly” pronouncing the r, and begin to put an r where there is none! An example of this would be a Bostonian saying ‘idear’ instead of “idea” which I have often heard.
    I agree that it can make a difference in poetry….especially if one believes in hearing poetry, as well as reading it.
    Thanks for a grrreat post!


  2. I heard that New York was losing its accent recently – or gaining backs its proper r’s, which is another way of looking at it. So I’m glad to hear that the r-less varieties of American English are holding out, at least in New England (just as, conversely, it’s nice that parts of old England kept the old pronunciation). Now you’ve told me about the Maine accent I will be listening carefully for r’s, or lack thereof, when I hear the poetry on your site… Thanks for dropping by!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha! I don’t have a true Maine accent, though I do slip into a Massachusetts accent, often, because I lived there for fifty years. I am one of those who consciously tried to lessen any heavy local accent because of an involvement in amateur theatre, and also had to stand and speak at length to adults from many areas when I was on the faculty at Massachusetts College of Art. I think the way TV anchors read the news has a lot to do with what is imagined to be accent-less American English….”accent-less” until they travel to Britain, or New Zealand, or Australia….And then they think those other folk have “accents.”!


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