Rhotic Liquid /r/

The most difficult English sound for speakers of many languages is the ‘r’ sound. As with ‘l,’ there are several ways it is used. In addition, it can accompany other sounds. An additional wrinkle is that many dialects of English do not use the ‘r’ sound in many circumstances, so it can be confusing when you are listening to English.

Table 11 – Different Types of ‘R’










The first ‘r,’ in the word “red,” strongly restricts the airflow. In this case, ‘r’ is acting as a consonant.

There is more than one way to look at the ‘r’ sound that acts as a vowel. In the word “bird,” what is the vowel in the syllable? The sound that comes between the consonants /b/ and /d/ is a kind of ‘r.’ . The ‘r’ sound is the vowel and it is written as [ɝ] in the IPA.  The next section discusses the ‘r’ sound /r/ in more detail.

R-Colored Vowels




Overwhelm [oʊvɚˈwɛlm̩]

Stir [stɚ]



Early [ɝli]

Bird   [bɝd]

Worm [wɝm]



Art [ɑrt]

Start [stɑrt]

Star [stɑr]



Orb [ɔrb]

Morbid [mɔrbɪd]

Store [stɔr]



Air [ɛr]

Fairly [fɛrli]

Stair [stɛr]


In English, there is an ‘r’ consonant [ɹ] and then a number of places where an ‘r’ sound is added to a vowel.  It can be written different ways, but I am using the most common which is an upside down ‘r’ [ɹ]. The first two rows indicate the position of the vowel and the hook that is attached to it indicates that you simultaneously make an ‘r’ sound.  The two symbols [ɚ] and [ɝ] both indicate the same sound, but [ɚ] is used in unstressed syllables and [ɝ] is used in stressed ones just as [ə] is used in unstressed syllables and [ʌ] is used in stressed one.

The last three rows add an ‘r’ symbol after the vowel to indicate that it is “r colored.”

The symbol [ɔ] stands for a rounded low back vowel that is close to [ɑ].  In some dialects of English the words “cot” and “caught” are pronounced differently, [kɑt] and [kɔt].  In California English, they are pronounced the same.

Though the IPA has the symbol, ‘r,’ it stands for the rolled (or trilled) ‘r’ that is found in Spanish, Finnish, and many Slavic languages and is not the common English ‘r’ consonant. To differentiate the English ‘r’ consonant is represented as an upside down ‘r’ [ɹ].

Some Example Sentences with the Rhotic Liquid /R/


  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 breath.