The Circus of Life: A Tale of Rhotic Delight

Posted on 22 May 2011

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I was walking out of the cinema recently having seen Water for Elephants, wondering whether or not one of the cast had been that guy who plays Bishop Brennan, who Father Ted famously kicked up the arse. To my unbridled smugness, it turns out it was him.

I won’t ruin the plot for anyone – but it’s a Titanic-esque love story centred around a failing circus in the US in the 1930s – a failing circus more than sufficiently embodying a faltering United States – where Prohibition was still in force.

They cast a number of Irish actors – including Jim Norton (Bishop Brennan) – as the 1930s accents still appeared to have a flavour of their Scotch-Irish ancestry. American English is more homogeneous in terms of varieties than British English – and is also a lot more conservative in a number of ways.

A lot of features of American English can give an insight into the waves of immigration into the country – as well as clues as to how the British English has subsequently evolved. It is thought that this Scotch-Irish influence – they were the second biggest group of migration/colonisation of the US – among other things, means that American English is a rhotic dialect.

This linguistic feature is common to, but not limited to, the various American, Scottish and Irish dialects of English – the pronunciation of /r/ in word-final and pre-consonantal positions, as with car and bird respectively – where a lot of British English accents do not (cf. southern English bar /ba:/ with New York /bar/).

Whether the rhoticity of American accents came from these accents, or from English as it used to be spoken, is a moot point.

Phonologically, this /r/ does exist for non-rhotic English speakers subconsciously, but is regularly deleted in a number of places – meaning that when you put on an American accent as a non-rhotic English speaker, as I am, this is one of the things that can trip you up.

Hugh Laurie

Hugh Laurie's American accent is so good, "most people over there think he is local"

The American ‘r’, IPA: /ɻ/, has retroflex articulation – meaning that the tip of the tongue curls back, and is one of American English’s most distinctive features. (Delightful tangent: this set of “retroflex” consonantal sounds is what makes Indic languages sound “Indian”.)

As a southeast English speaker (note, this is not RP), I delete all word-final and pre-consonantal /r/ sounds. But this means my brain assumes that with all final “-ar”, “-er”, etc.  sounds are deleted “r”s.

Word-final /r/ reappears in my accent when a vowel follows the word.

Given all this, when it comes to putting these ‘r’ sounds back in – e.g. when putting on an American accent – my brains wants to put them back everywhere – particularly in words that end on a schwa [ə] – the unstressed vowel in such words as later, liar, civil, ago – and there are plenty in my surname: Tavener.

If I’m not careful, cinema could get a final r-sound, a rhoticised schwa [ɚ], as could Sarah, claw and Visa.

This is known in the business as intrusive ‘r’, and in fact this is a linguistic ‘infliction’ that can occur when not putting an accent on.

  • Law and order > law-rand order
  • Pisa and Florence > Pisa-rand Florence

Another example using a linguistic blast-from-the-past: when using an old Minolta copier – it was common for people to say “I’ve been Minoltaring“.

You can get this intrusive ‘r’ in surprising places, in this example from the land of Cockney:

  • You left the window-r-open
Anyone remember Cilla Black’s catchphrase about laughing a lot? Same thing…

Cool, but intrusive!

This is one of the ways to tell when an unsuspecting Brit is putting on an American accent – look out for that misplaced rhoticism and those pesky intrusive ‘r’s.

This conscious reinsertion of a sound from an accent that your accent blanket removes is a skill that must be learned – but that some people are better at than others.

In Portuguese – well, this is what I’m learning right now – you get the same with the Rio de Janeiro accent. One of the features of this accent is that ‘s’ in some situations, like in some word-final positions, is pronounced like ‘sh’, [∫], where as in most other Brazilian accents it is not.

The numbers ‘two’ and ‘three’ – dois, três – are rendered  like doi∫ and trê∫. But this isn’t done everywhere – and someone who doesn’t have the knack could be spotted in seconds as an accent fraud.

Anyhoo, back to the film – and one of the biggest messages that the film-makers seemed to want to convey was this: even if you act your way through life and you do well at it, pretending you can do things you’re not qualified for, seeming more confident that you really are – and this can be anyone – circus trainers, teachers, lecturers, reporters, politicians, doctors, pilots – you cannot act in love and true feelings will out.

In some ways, it’s the same with putting on an American – or any other – accent.

You might get the basics right, but unless you’re very skilled, something you don’t realise you’re doing will ‘out’ you and trip you up in the end.

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