r-colored vowels

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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.

Expressive Cueing

There is only instance in cueing where the /r/ is built in to the vowel. In the words {{hear|hɚˈd|heard}}, bird, word, the /r/ is not cued as a separate consonant. New cuers sometimes incorrectly add /r/ following this cue.


The contrast betwen /i/ and /ɪ/ are important to differentiate English words (e.g., beat-bit, seat-sit, feet-fit). However, this difference is neutralized before /r/. In other words, there are no cases in the English language where changing /ɪ/ to /i/ before /r/ changes the meaning of a word. In fact, most speakers of English do not pronounce either vowel distinctly before /r/, but a sound somewhere inbetween. 

The vowel /i/ is a high front vowel. On the other hand, /ɪ/ is produced in a similar place in the oral tract, but with the height of the tongue slightly lower than for /i/. The vowel produced in “ear” words is, therefore, produced somewhere between /i/ and /ɪ/, and lowers as the word increases in length. For that reason the vowel will sound increasingly more ɪ-like in longer words. Compare the following: pier, piered, pyramid.

Further, the raising of the vowel /i/ tends to cuase insertion of a schwa resulting in the two-syllable /biɚ/. For instructional and reference purposes, many authors select /bɪr/ or /biɚ/. By far, /bɪr/ is the more common pronunciation. 


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/
/ɔ/ /o/
horse hoarse

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/. 



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.

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