Rhotic/non-rhotic spelling problems


This weekend’s papers have brought up (quite inadvertently on their part) a problem caused by the development of non-rhotic accents:

“High Street banks are often reluctant to invest in what they see as risky and uncharted territory” (Mail on Sunday, 24 June 2012)

“We’re in somewhat unchartered territory in 2020.” (The Independent, 23 June 2012).

My non-rhotic pronunciation is such that I could never confuse these two words: (un)charted /ˈtʃɑːtɪd/ versus (un)chartered /ˈtʃɑːtəd/. But the version of non-rhotic English espoused notably by Tony Blair, but also by many others, uses schwa in both words (/ˈtʃɑːtəd/), leading to the mis-use of ‘(un)chartered’ for ‘(un)charted’ in such contexts.

A similar problem arises with formerly and formally.

“The artist /ˈfɔːməli/ known as Prince” could be interpreted as either, with totally different meanings. Prince intends, and as a rhotic American, spells, formerly, but if “Prince” was his official name, then formally would be equally appropriate.

I don’t believe that any amount of spelling reform could eliminate this problem.


  1. I (an American rhotic speaker) always wondered why Eeyore had such a (to me) strange name. I finally figured out that Milne was non-rhotic. It’s one of those head-slappers; as in, shame on me.

  2. I wonder where Blair picked up the habit of ə in horsES and startED from. There are four areas of the country that say this.
    1 the north-east
    2 an area of southern Yorkshire (Wakefield, Barnsley, Sheffield)
    3 East Anglia
    4 Liverpool

    From reading Blair’s Wiki article, I can only think that he picked it up when living in Durham as a child (1 in the list).

    This is a funny feature of speech. It is regionally-restricted but there are pockets of it spread out, rather than there being an isogloss that divides ə from ɪ.

  3. Nice pair of examples, Graham! Like yours, my kind of British accent hasnt undergone the centralisation of [ɛ] to /ɪ/ to /ə/ of various syllables that so many other varieties of English speech have in England (including the northeastern type reflected in Blair’s speech) and in most subequatorial and northern American varieties. As you say, for us consequently ‘charted’ and ‘chartered’ are perfectly distinct as /ʧɑtɪd/ and /ʧɑtəd/ whereas for more ‘modern’ speakers they’re homophones. This recalls my Blog 153 which gives various examples of how the confusion of spoken and written forms has given rise over the centuries to numbers of sound-to-spelling miscoordinations involving words like ‘Bolognese, camellia, carburetor, colonel, fantasia, gaol, lieutenant, maragarine, sacrilegious, self-deprecation, sinfonia, varicose’ etc.

  4. With regards to Mr. Lewis’s post, I’m not sure if the use of /ə/ in words such as “charted” is characterised by modernity. I would argue that it’s a regional feature that is not stigmatised. Where I live, there is a remarkably robust isogloss for the vowels in startED and horsES. The residents of Leeds use /ɪ/ and the residents of Wakefield use /ə/. There is little variation with regards to age or social class. This isogloss seems to have remained static since the days of the SED.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.