R - a semivowel?


Senior Member
As I was walking around in the grocery store the other day [which, I guess, is completely irrelevant :)], I wondered about the standard American English R sound.

By definition, could the R sound be defined as a semivowel? By the definition of a consonant that I'm used to (a sound made by manipulating air flow through tongue contact with some other part of your mouth), I don't see how it can be called a consonant, yet that is how it is always taught.

Am I right?
  • sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Some things are arbitrary in life. I've never heard your definition of consonant. Apparently, neither has the WRD.

    Semi-vowels? Let's not go there.


    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    The word 'semivowel' is a traditional term that I don't think has any actual phonetic meaning. The closest actual phonetic term is 'approximant', a sound where the tongue (or other articulator) comes close enough to a mouthpart to give a distinct resonance to a sound, but not close enough to cause turbulence.

    Approximants include the Dutch <w> sound and the Spanish <g> in luego and the English sound of <r> in 'red' (beginning of a word, typical English pronunciations). None of these would traditionally be described as semivowels, because that term is, it seems to me, restricted to semivowels in the high palate region - between phonetic [j] as in yes and [w] as in went.

    The reason these are singled out from other approximants in other parts of the mouth is that diphthongs approach these values. The vowel of eye, high, die is something like [ai] or [aj], where the second part approaches the [ i] vowel and may get even closer and approach the [j] approximant, causing a kind of non-frictional consonant sound. This is the reason these sounds have been termed semivowels: in effect, they're consonants that depending on your accent can be part of vowels.

    Well, to get to the point, AE [r] does satisfy that definition. Normally the word tar is transcribed as if [tar], a vowel followed by a consonant [r]. In fact it is normal for AE [ar] to be a vowel [a] with [r]-colouring all the way through it: the tongue is curled up for the position of r-as-in-red but is there all through the basic tongue position for the vowel [a].
    < Previous | Next >