Rhotic Liquid /r/

The most difficult English sound for speakers of many languages is the ‘r’  sound. Though it is considered a single phoneme, that can occur in four different places.  It can occur as a consonant, as a vowel, and attached to vowels.  

 SpellingPhonemeRepresentative Words
1.'r'/ɹ/"red" /ɹɛd/
"bread" /bɹɛd/
2.'ir,' 'or'/ɝ/"bird" /bɝd/
"work" /wɝk/
3.'er,' 'or'/ɚ/"butter" /bʌɾɚ/
"freer" /fɹiɚ/
4.."or"/ɔr/"bore" /bɔr/
"oar" /ɔr/
5.."air," "ear"/ɛr/"bear" /bɛr/
"air" /ɛr/
6.."fear," "ear"/ɪr/"beer" /bɪr/
"ear" /ir/

The first row of the table is the sound of ‘r’ as a consonant.  We write it as an upside-down ‘r’ /ɹ/. This is the sound in words like, “red” /ɹɛd/,, or “tried” /tɹɑɪd/. 

A right-side-up ‘r’ /r/ is used to stand for the trilled ‘r’ that that occurs in many languages such as Spanish and Finish.  For instance Spanish “perro” /pero/ and Finnish “Hari” /hari/. 

The second and third rows are two ways of representing the same sound, a vocalic ‘r.’  Vocalic consonants are constants that act as a vowel and can be the core to a syllable. The sound is the ‘r’ sound in “bird,” “early,” “letter,” and “paper.”  The reason that there are two ways of representing the same sound is that same as for /ʌ/ and /e/, when the syllable is stressed, we write the sounds as /ɝ/, and when it is unstressed, we write it is ɚ/.  

“bird” /bɝd/
“early” /ɝli/
“letter” /lɛɹɚ/
“paper” /peɪpɚ/

The fourth, fifth, and sixth rows add an ‘ɹ’ symbol after the vowel to indicate that the vowel sound merges into the /ɚ/ sound similar to a diphthong.   Following is a list of the r-colored vowels

Three of the vowel sounds are written with two symbols, but /ɝ/ and /ɚ/ are not. They have been written as /ʌɹ/ and /əɹ/. However, that misses the fact that you are making the vowel sound and modifying it with the ‘r’ sound by curling back your tongue or bunching it up. Some linguists write /ɔɹ/, /ɑɹ/, and /ɛɹ/  as single symbols. Remember not to get too hung up on symbols because there is some variation. I try to be consistent on this website. 

 phoneme/
allophone
Beginning of WordMiddle of WordEnd of Word
1./ɚ/around
[ɚˈɹaʊnd]
perfect
[pɚˈfɛkt]
ever
[ˈɛvɚ]
2./ɝ/Early [ɝli]Bird [bɝd]Worm [wɝm]
3./ɑr/Art [ɑrt]Start [stɑrt]Star [stɑr]
4./ɔr/Orb [ɔrb] Morbid [mɔrbɪd]Store [stɔr]
5./ɛr/Air [ɛr]Fairly [fɛrli]Stair [stɛr]
  1. Early morbid art is fairly rare. [ɝli mɔrbɪd ɑrt ɪz fɛrli ɹɛr]
  2. The early bird catches the worm. [ðə ɝli bɝd kæt͡ʃz ðə wɝm̩]
  3. The moon orbits the Earth. [ðə mun ɔrbɪts ðə ɝθ].
  4. Air is necessary to breathe.