6: American English r-controlled vowels /ɚ, ɑr, ɔr, ɛr/

Practice saying and hearing the difference between r-controlled vowels: /ɚ, ɑr, ɔr, ɛr/

PRACTICE: "Learning early in the morning can be fairly hard work."


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is podcast number 6. If this is your first time listening to this podcast, you should know that this is the third of three podcasts dealing with the l sound and r sound, and you may want to go back and start with podcast #4.

I hope you've all had a chance to visit www.pronuncian.com and see the other free practice activities we offer on that site as well as read the transcripts if they help you understand this information.

Did you are memorize last week's practice sentence "I would really like a little red wagon like Laura's"? How about the sentence before that "On Thursday, Thelma threw three red rocks"? Before that, we had the s sound, z sound practice in the sentence "Cats love boxes; dogs love beds." Today we will learn about r-controlled vowels and we will practice the sentence "Learning early in the morning can be fairly hard work."

So what are these r-controlled vowels I've been talking about for 2 weeks now? All of the sounds I've talked about so far have been consonant sounds. In the Latin alphabet, the alphabet English uses, we have 26 letters. 21 of those letters are consonants. For example, the letters t, d, s, z, l, and r, are consonants. The letters that aren't consonants, are vowels. We have five vowels: a, e, i, o, and u. These five vowels are used to represent 15 different sounds. How do we have so many sounds for so few letters? Well, think about the words "top" and "home". Already we can see the letter o representing two different sounds, the (short o) sound and the (long o) sound. If we add the word "dog", we find another sound represented by the o, the (aw sound) sound. Listen to those three words again: top, home, dog. When we begin talking about vowels, it is very important that we distinguish whether we are talking about a letter or a sound.

When I talk about r-controlled vowels, I am talking about four vowel sounds that are said differently because they are followed by the letter r. Or, to say it another way, the r sound changes the way we say the vowel sound before it.

Which sounds change when before an r sound? One of the easiest to hear is the (ar sound) sound. This is usually spelled as "a" plus "r" as in the word "car". C-a-r. Say the ar sound alone (ar sound). Now, if you learned a British pronunciation of English, you were probably taught not to say the r sound at the end of the word "car" unless the next word begins with a vowel sound. In the United States, we always say the r sound. Other words with the ar sound are farm, start, and smart. Say those words after me. Farm. Start. Smart.

The next r-controlled vowel is the "or" spelling, which sounds like (or sound). Word with the or sound (or sound) include the words four, tore, store, and explore. Repeat those words now. Four. Tore. Store. Explore.

Another r-controlled vowel is the a-i-r sound (air sound), like in the words air, stair, hair, and care. Say those words after me: air, stair, hair, care. Later, I will expand on how these vowels sound different from when they are not before an r, for now, I really just want you to know that they exist.

The r-controlled vowel that really seems to cause the most confusion is the schwa + r sound. First, what is the schwa sound? The schwa sound is an unstressed vowel sound in English. When schwa comes before an r, there becomes almost no vowel sound at all, and we say and hear only an r sound that takes a little longer than it would if it weren't after a vowel.

In the r-controlled vowels we looked at so far, we can hear two distinct sounds. In the a-r sound (ar sound) we hear (a, r). With the o-r sound (or sound) we hear o-r. And a-i-r sound (air sound) we hear (ai-r). But with the schwa+r, we just hear (r sound), and no distinct extra vowel sound. Listen to the word girl. Girl. Girl. We hear g-r-l, only three sounds, all of them consonants. Listen to the word learn. Learn. Learn. We hear l-r-n, only three sounds. The r sound is nearly taking over the vowels in those words. It isn't completely taking over the vowel, however, because it is still responsible for creating syllables in words.

I'll demonstrate this by comparing two very similar words, the words terrain t-e-r-r-a-i-n, and train t-r-a-i-n. These two words are pronounced the same except that the first word has an r-controlled vowel and the second word does not. Listen carefully. Terrain, train. Notice also that the first word is two syllables long, and the second word is only one syllable long. Terrain, train.

The schwa+r sound is the most common r-controlled vowel and is commonly spelled er, ir, or ur. For instance, and er spelling exists in the word her h-e-r. An ir spelling exists in the word girl g-i-r-l. And a ur spelling exists in the word burn, b-u-r-n. Those are the most common spellings, but any vowel before an r can become a schwa+r. For example, the words work and word are both spelled or, but sound like schwa+r. Work, w-r-k, and word, w-r-d.

Remember, a schwa+r really just sounds like an r sound that takes more time to say. We really don't hear any vowel sound before it. Let's look back to our first r sound practice sentence from two weeks ago, "On Thursday, Thelma threw three red rocks." Can you pick out the r-controlled vowel in that sentence? Maybe you noticed the first time we practiced that sentence that the first sounds in the word "Thursday" are different form the first sounds in the words "threw" and "three". "Thursday" has an unvoiced th sound followed by a schwa+r sound. "Threw" and "three" are both the unvoiced th sound followed by a plain r sound. I'm going to say all three words again. Thursday, threw, three. Thursday, because it has a schwa+r sound, has an r sound that lasts longer than three and threw.

Let's review the four r-controlled vowels. The ar sound (ar sound), the or sound (or sound), the air sound (air sound) and the schwa+r sound (er sound). Which r-controlled vowel do you hear in the word corn? (pause) It is the or sound. How about the word first? (pause) It is the schwa+r sound. And the word dark? (pause) That is the ar sound. Do you remember the word work? Work, though it is spelled with an or, is pronounced as schwa+r. Work.

So, are you ready for our practice sentence for r-controlled vowels? Here it is. "Learning early in the morning / can be fairly hard work." See if you can find all the r-controlled vowels in that sentence. All four of them are there, and one is there three times. Repeat after me. "Learning early in the morning / can be fairly hard work." For some of you, saying these r sounds is very, very hard work! Let's say the sentence again. "Learning early in the morning can be fairly hard work."

There, after three weeks of working on the r sounds and the l sound, are they getting any easier for you? Let me know! You can email me at podcast @pronuncian.com, and tell me what you think. If you have a pronunciation issue you'd like me to talk about, I'll get to it as soon as possible. Also, if you've downloaded this podcast through iTunes, please, write a review. Tell the world what you think. I create these podcasts for free, and writing a review is a great way to let me know you appreciate my efforts.

Next week I am going to work my way into vowel sounds by starting with the semi-vowels, the y sound and w sound. These two sounds are important on their own, but become even more important when we start talking about joined speech and I give you some tips for whole sentences and not just single sounds and individual words.

Have a great week everyone, and remember, you can go to the transcripts from this episode to find word lists specific to the skills we worked on today, as well as all of the past shows. It takes a lot of practice to break speech habits.

Good luck!