R-colored vowels (also rhotic vowels, rhoticized vowels, retroflexed vowels, darn r vowels) is a term used to describe a vowel immediate followed by the consonant /r/. More than other consonants, a following /r/ can make discerning the vowel challenginf or new cuers. For this resason, r-colored vowels are often taught as stand alone lessons rather than being incorporated into lessons on the vowels cues.
There is only instance in cueing where the /r/ is built in to the vowel. In the words heard, bird, word, 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.
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 inbetween. 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 therapist 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 an “ear” word 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.)
Two Syllable: cheering, eerie, mirror, piercing, steering, weary
Three Syllable: chandelier, pyramid
Four Syllable: conspirator, delirious
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 /ɔ/, /o/, /u/, or /ʊ/. 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 /ɔ/ and /o/ before /r/
For many regions, however, the distinction between /ɔ/ and /o/ 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 /ɔ/. 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 /ɔr/.
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.