r-colored vowels

R-colored vowels (also r-controlled vowelsrhotic vowels, rhotacized vowels, retroflexed vowels, darn r vowels) is a term used to describe the change in quality of a spoken vowel immediately followed by the consonant /r/. More than some other consonants, the presence of an immediately following /r/ can make it challenging for new cuers to recognize the vowel at the heart of a syllable. For this reason, r-colored vowels are often given special attention in introductory lessons.

Expressive Cueing


There is only instance in cueing where the /r/ is built in to the vowel. In the words heard, birdword, the /r/ is not cued as a separate consonant. New cuers sometimes add /r/ following this vowel placement therefore incorrectly cueing hear-r-d, bir-r-d, and wor-r-d. Intermediate and advanced cuers sometimes make a similar error by adding /r/ within multisyllabic words like hurry, stirring, and courage.

Sometimes, cuers insist that that pronounce /r/ twice in words like hurry. This is more likely a function of their perception of the consonant /r/ being part of the second vowel. They may feel as though the quality of the /rrrrrrrrriēeeiēeeiēee/ is not sufficiently represented. The problem is that the consonant is built-in to the preceding vowel and they may want to add handshape 3 at the mouth. 

There are three possible issues: 1) the sense that there are two /r/ consonants; 2) wanting /r/ initiate the following syllable with /iēeeiēeeiēee/; 3) a sense that the /r/ is held longer or drawn out.

Two /r/ Consonants

English generally doesn't allow double consonants within words. We can have double consonants between words (e.g., fish shop, bad dog). It is possible that English users may perceive two consonants (or one long held consonant) between two meaningful units of one word (e.g., barroom). This is different than the word hurry which is not made up of two words joined together. The urge to add an extra /r/ in hurry is more likely a function of the fact that the consonant is not represented by a handshape, but is embedded in the vowel. It may be worth asking these new cuers if they perceive two /r/ in words like barrage and married. These words (like hurry) are cued with a single consonant /r/, but are less confusing because they conform to the CV/ handshape-placement nature of cueing.

/r/ as Syllable Initial

Sometimes cuers want the consonant /r/ to be the beginning of the second syllable in hurry. This is problematic because the /r/ is built-in to the vowel. It may not feel as connected to the following /iēeeiēeeiēee/ for new cuers. They may even insert a pause, "I don't say hurr... y!" They may pause and insert a glottal stop making an unfamiliar sounding version of the word which resembles two distinct words: hurr and y. Instructors can reassure them that the connection between syllables is intact during fluent cueing. It may help them to understand that some consonants can be perceived as the end of one syllable or the beginning of the next. The /mmmmmmmmm/ in hammer is sometimes perceived as the end of the first syllable (ham-er) or the beginning of the second syllable (ha-mer). Despite this fact, the word is cued as ha-mer. 

For some cuers, however, the /ɚûrurɚûrurɚûrur/ may be derhotacized. That is the /ɚûrurɚûrurɚûrur/ is produced more closely to a separate /ʌŭuhʌŭuhʌŭuh/ followed by /rrrrrrrrr/. This is especially true for many cuers with dialects of New York and New Jersey. For them, they may pronounce hurry as /hhhhhhhhhʌŭuhʌŭuhʌŭuhrrrrrrrrriēeeiēeeiēee/. Again, we do not see two /rrrrrrrrr/ consonants, but the separation, or derhotazation, of the vowel from /rrrrrrrrr/ means that they will cue hurry as 3sd 3m. 

Held /r/

Sometimes cuers believe that they speak slowly and with sufficient "drawl" that they need to produce two /r/ consonants in hurry. The simplest way to analyze this is to consider is they double other consonants as they cue slowly. Do they double consonants in me, runner, and isn't? The urge to double the /r/ is again linked to the fact that it is built into a vowel and people want a handshape to initiate the next consonant. When a consonant is stretched, it  may be cued for a longer duration. So if someone pronounced him as /hhhhimm/ with especially long consonants, they can hold the cues with synchronized mouthshapes for additional time. Cueing as slowly as one may say it. This change in rate does not necessarily produce extra phonemes. So again, it is unlikely that hurry would need an additional /r/.

"ear" words

There's a somewhat controversial history between the vowels in heat and hit. Following a long debate over how to cue the final vowel in a word like happy, the mouth placement eventually won out for the majority of dialects of English. Many cuers wondered if words rhyming with "ear" followed suit. How do we cue "ear" words?

With regard to speech production, the vowel in "ear" may not exactly resemble the vowel in eat or it. It might be produced somewhere in between;  of course, speech production doesn't tell us the phoneme in our head. Speech sounds have much more variation than cueing allows. While our mouths can show subtle variations in production, our hands do not. In this case, the vowel in ear must be cued as either the mouth placement or the throat placement. There is no cue for somewhere in the middle.

In general, it is widely accepted among linguists and speech therapists that the vowel in ear is best represented as the vowel in it and should, therefore, be cued at the throat placement. This can become increasingly easier to discern as words get longer: pier, pierced, pyramid.

This is not to say that the vowel in "ear" words cannot change to more closely resemble the vowel in heat especially when stressed (e.g., No, look HERE!!) However, instructors should be aware that the widely accepted convention (among cuers and non-cuers) is that this case is generally for stressed instances not unstressed ones (e.g., If you come here, I'll give you some candy.) New cuers should be cautioned against adopting an  I-Cue-It-This-Way approach. Rather, they should be reminded that words can be cued many different ways by the same cuer depending on context and stress.


One Syllable: beer, dear, deer, fear, gear, gears, hear, jeer, Lear, mere, near, peer, pier, pierce, seer, steer, veer, we'reyear

Two Syllable: cheering, eerie, mirror, piercing, steering, weary, Zaire

Three Syllable: chandelier, pyramid

Four Syllable: conspirator, delirious

"or" words

A great deal of dialectal variation occurs in the American English pronunciations for "or" words. These words (e.g., sort, poor, core, mourn) may contain the vowels /ɔôawɔôawɔôaw/, /oōohoōohoōoh/, /uo͞oueuo͞oueuo͞oue/, or /ʊo͝oooʊo͝oooʊo͝ooo/. Again, we see that the vowel contrast is generally neutralized before /r/. However, in some cases, the contrast persists. For cuers in parts of Louisiana, South Carolina, and New England, the words horse and hoarse may be pronounced distinctly.

Contrast of /ɔôawɔôawɔôaw/ and /oōohoōohoōoh/ before /rrrrrrrrr/

/ɔôawɔôawɔôaw/ /oōohoōohoōoh/
horse hoarse

For many regions, however, the distinction between /ɔôawɔôawɔôaw/ and /oōohoōohoōoh/ is lost. In dialects of the mid-Atlantic region of the country (i.e., Virginia and Maryland) these words are likely pronounced with the vowel /o/ and cued with the side-forward movement. For most dialects in the country (and in most texts and dictionaries), the vowel is represented as /ɔôawɔôawɔôaw/. This is significant for Cued Speech instructors. Since, historically many of them come from a region dominated by /or/ while most of the country says and cues /ɔôawɔôawɔôawrrrrrrrrr/. 

"are" words

Words that rhyme with "are" are generally cued with a side-forward movement using the vowel /ɑäahɑäahɑäah/. When spoken, the vowel may sound quite different from the vowel in not. Again, the presence of /rrrrrrrrr/ changes the preceding vowel. In some dialects, one may find variation. Speakers may pronounce are as /ɑäahɑäahɑäahrrrrrrrrr/ or /ɔôawɔôawɔôawrrrrrrrrr/. Cuers need not necessarily pick one, as they may find that the pronunciation of this word may alternate between these two vowels depending on where the word falls in a sentence and its stress. Cuers should attempt to cue their dialect and may find that the vowel in the word are alternates in its pronunciation.  


One Syllable: are, bar, ar, dart, far, heart, guard, jar, lard, mart, par, part, parks, tart, 

Two Syllable: barter, carnage, Cater, carbon, farther, starter

Three Syllable: carnation, sarcasm, partition

"air" words

Words that rhyme with "air" (e.g., bare, hair, where) can be tricky for new cuers who intially believe the closet vowel may be a diphthong (i.e., as in bay, hey, way). 

Dialectal Variation


One Syllable: air, bare, care, dare, err, fair, fare, hair, hare, lair, mare, pare, pear, rare, stare, stairs, tare, tear, where

Two Syllable: barely, error, garish, terror, very

Three Syllable: carrier, maritime, terrorist

Cued Speech Instruction

For hearing students, recognizing vowel phonemes tends to be more challenging than consonants. The acoustic effect of a following [r] can make identifying vowels difficult. many instructors, therefore, devote specialized training to these vowels.