Friday, 5 July 2013


Furthermore to my earlier blog about phonemic awareness, here's another repeat topic, and only bother with this if you genuinely enjoy the topic, this is not for the casual reader.

First, read this:

Except that's not true, at least it's not the full story.

Never mind the spelling, the question should be "why do Americans put a R in colonel?" Answer: Because they can't say it any other way.

I can.

This does not make my accent/background/ability superior to yours, and if you ever meet a snarky English person who thinks it does, you have my full permission to punch them on the nose. This is just one of the examples of difference between the two accents.

It dates back to the Hanoverian kings taking over the United Kingdom. Until then English people said "kernal" too. But the German accent became very fashionable in England, and permanently affected the way people speak, especially in the areas nearest to London. Once a strict non-rhotic accent became fixed in the London area, it began to spread. It has spread farther even within my lifetime (and in my absence).

It started, obviously, in the royal court. It then spread both by geography and class. So today, non-rhoticity is heard in most of south-east England, and just about anywhere if people are posh. Posh people in England are non-rhotic. Period. And less and less posh too. From royals in the 18th century, to educated working-class people today. Rhoticity in much of England is now associated with being a country bumpkin, a hick.

When I was a teenager I dated a rhotic-speaking boy from the north of Essex. You wouldn't find that now, it's been pushed much farther north. And so on.

In the United States the opposite has happened. Being non-rhotic in many areas is the "old" accent, and can get you identified as "country" - I've heard this distinction especially betwen Atlanta and the rural parts of Georgia. In Boston the non-rhotic traditional accent is slowly diminishing, and seen as rather quaint, but also associated with being from the rough parts of town.

Anyway, let's get back to the point. How you say Colonel depends largely on whether you are rhotic or not, although interestingly I've been told that some non-rhotic speakers make an EXCEPTION to force an R into colonel. That's why this word is special, and why it's central to my discussion (I can dream) here today.

Now some of you, I know, are saying "HOW ELSE CAN YOU SAY IT". Well, using the magic of the internet, I'm going to show you. Go here: and scroll down to the third example, by TopQuark, a gentleman from England, or the 7th one, a lady called x_WoofyWoo_x. Click on the little blue button, and listen carefully.

I also know that rhotic speakers have terrible trouble repeating this back, but most can get it after a few attempts, unless (DRUM ROLL) they have poor phonemic awareness (see previous post).

If, therefore, you cannot tell the difference, or can hear it but can't say it, this post will be of no use to you anyway. But those of you who said "Oh! I see!", should plod on, as I'm about to tell you what you just heard.

The title of this blog is Ö, but it could just as easily have been Ø. The former is the German letter, the latter is the Scandinavian version, but they refer to the same sound. This is the sound you just heard when the English people said "colonel". In other words, we could spell it "könel" or "kønel" to demonstrate it, but that won't help if you can't say it.

For many years I got frustrated with rhotic friends when trying to explain this. Then I learned about how rhotic speakers have what are known as r-coloured vowels. In other words, in a word like...well....WORD, the R following the vowel colours it. The speaker is already "in position" as it were, to say the R, and the vowel is affected by this.

Bet you didn't know that. Hardly anyone does unless they've studied linguistics. What it means is that a rhotic speaker finds it very difficult to remove the R-ness from the vowel.

Here's where it gets interesting. This is only a problem with the syllable ER.

In all the other ways that R follows the vowel, there is another vowel without an R that rhotic speakers can switch to.

For example, instead of AR they can say AH

Instead or OR they can say AW (rather exaggerated in some cases, but close enough)

Instead of IRE they can say EYE-A

And so on.

But with a few exceptions (and not just in Quebec) North Americans don't have a Ö. In fact they don't even have a way to WRITE IT, which is why I'm using a German letter.

And of course, they have no need for it either. It simply doesn't arise as an issue.

Until they try to copy a non-rhotic accent....or learn a language that has this sound as standard.

The funny thing is, almost every single one of them suddenly discovers they can say it when they have to. It just requires a different mouth shape. Here's proof:


French for blue. Unless you are completely ignorant of the world (in which case you won't be reading this, so it's moot) I know you can say BLEU. I have never heard even the dumbest redneck say BLUR. (If you have, don't tell me. It would be painful.)


The inability to pronounce that vowel is a delusion. Even though it's not part of the non-rhotic accent, at all, it is possible to say it. The trick is in not seeing the R, so not expecting the R, and therefore not aiming for the R.

In fact to the question "why do Americans put a R in colonel?" The REAL answer is: Because they THINK they can't say it any other way.

I wrote a poem about this....

Oh my dear, why do you taunt me so?
It is such a colourful show...
We spent a month painting the set
And it's something I don't regret
But your teasing was so hard to bear
When I wanted the balustrade vert
And the rouge of the chair legs just right
So I sat up painting all night
Oh Nelly, you were so verbose
When you opined on that shade of rose
I blame your father alone
And his ideas on where to use jaune
His army days fading - it's wrong
But he overdoes all that marron
Eye to eye, we never will see
On his preference for way too much gris
But for now I must chastise the Colonel
For refusing to let me use bleu, Nell

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