Vanishing r

| 3 Comments

It’s well known that “Febuary” is a common pronunciation (and spelling – 706 million hits on Google, but with multiple warnings about “Did you mean to search for February?”), but it’s by no means the only English word that tends to lose an r or /r/. Usually it occurs when two /r/ phonemes start consecutive syllables: arbitrary, contrary, deteriorate, library, literary, as well as February, but there are cases where a syllable intervenes between the two /r/s: secretary, veterinary.

After February, secretary must be the word in which this phenonemon caused the most complaints at my time at the BBC, when any perceived ‘dropped’ /r/ would bring letters on to my desk. And yet veterinary is accepted without question by almost everybody when it is pronounced /?vet(?)n(?)ri/. No one ever complained about it in my 23 years of answering such letters.

What I notice is that if the two /r/s are in adjacent syllables, it is the second that is dropped (e.g. deteriorate > ‘deteriate’), whereas if there is a greater distance between them, the first one disappears (‘Febuary’, ‘secketary’, ‘vetinary’). In the case of meteorological, either the /r/ or the first /l/ can go, but more often it is the /r/, leaving /mi?ti??l?d??k?l/ – rather than */mi?ti??r?d??k?l/.

I don’t know of an explanation for this, but perhaps someone else can supply one.

3 Comments

  1. This phenomenon is called “dissimilation” and a websearch on that term, “R-deletion” or both will turn up enough hits to give you a pretty good idea of the explanation. Dissimilation occurs in many languages, and R-deletion is particularly (“paticularly”) common in English.

    I hope this helps. I had to research this for the benefit of those of my clients for whom English is not a first language (I’m a dialect coach). Native speakers of English generally just get on with it; they learned the “rules” as they learned to speak.

  2. It probably wouldn’t have occured to me to think of February as an example of r-deletion, because of course the missing /r/ is always (so far as I know) replaced with an extra /j/, making it a case of r-replacement rather than deletion alone. Yes, technically, replacement does break down into the deletion of one thing and the insertion of another, but February is anomolous in that respect. Or is it?

  3. Some years ago Brian Sewell, the notorious pronounced-RP speaker ( read ‘la-di-da’ in common speech) wrote a piece on the ‘Febuary’ problem in his Evening Standard column, deploring its recent incidence. I wrote to him pointing out that, in fairness, he should also have deplored the ‘Fraffly’ pronounciation ‘Febrah’, common among the toffs. He wrote back a nice postcard agreeing that this was a fair point and confessing that, though not exactly a ‘Fraffly’ speaker, his friends did joke about his use of ‘Ears’ meaning ‘Yes’ in a slightly disapproving reply.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.