December 4, 1998
Two people took my bait by writing something like:
What does "rhotic" mean? You mentioned "rhotic dialects" in your entry of scarf, but I can't find this in my dictionary.
Why, thanks for asking.
Rhotic is a technical term in linguistics that refers to one of two major varieties of spoken English. In one variety, the letter r is pronounced wherever it appears in writing: thus, run, crash, four, carol, fourth, worker, and car all have their r pronounced. This variety of English is called rhotic, or r-ful.
In another variety, the r is pronounced in word-initial (run), post-consonantal (crash), and intervocalic (between-vowels) (carol) positions, but is reduced or eliminated in postvocalic (following a vowel) positions. In this variety the words four, fourth, worker, and car are pronounced without the r. This variety is called non-rhotic or r-less.
The rhoticity or non-rhoticity of a given speech community depends on a number of factors, often historical in nature. In the seventeenth century, most of England was rhotic, but non-rhotic speech was common in the southeast, near London. By the eighteenth century this became a prestige variety. In America, areas colonized by higher-class immigrants from southeastern England, such as Tidewater Virginia and the Eastern New England area, maintained non-rhotic speech, which is why the stereotyped Boston accent is r-less--"I pahked my cah by Hahvahd yahd" being a prime example. The r-lessness resulted partly from these speakers being (or being descended from) speakers of r-less dialects in England, and partly from the contact that wealthier speakers from these regions maintained with London at a time when r-lessness was prestigious.
Other regions, such as the mid-Atlantic states, Western New England, and upland areas around Virginia, were chiefly colonized by Scots-Irish or Western English immigrants who spoke r-ful dialects, and did not maintain much contact with upper-class British speech. (New York City, traditionally r-less, is a slightly differerent story; the area was originally r-ful, but r-lessness grew in the mid-nineteenth century through immigration from New England.)
Standard American English is rhotic, and many American non-rhotic varieties tend to be held in low regard. The linguist William Labov did a famous study in New York where he got department-store employees to say "fourth floor," and showed that the employees in a fancy store very often pronounced the rs in both words, while the employees in a discount store usually didn't pronounce the rs. He also found that in careful speech, all people were more likely to pronounce the rs, suggesting that speakers are aware of the difference and make an effort to use more prestigious forms when they think about it. However, in many parts of the United States non-rhotic varieties are widespread; Southern U.S. English has non-rhotic speakers at all social levels, for example. Standard British English is non-rhotic, and in England it is the non-rhotic varieties that have social prestige.
To return to the point of the scarf etymology, speakers of one variety can make mistakes by hearing a word spoken and either adding or dropping an r based on an impression of what should be correct. Thus, a classic joke in the New York area has a student writing "A tragic hero is one who falls through the floor in his character," where the (r-less) student heard the word flaw and thought it was floor, these words pronounced the same in some r-less dialects.
The word rhotic is first found in the late 1960s, and is derived from rho, the Greek letter equivalent to r.
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