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Summary Details

Query:   /r/ Dissimilation
Author:  Nancy Hall
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Phonology

Summary:   Regarding Query:

I recently posted a request for literature on and examples of a
sporadic pattern of /r/ dissimilation in English. There were dozens of
interesting replies and space does not allow me to do justice to all the
points they raised, so this summary will mostly be confined to reporting
literature and examples.

Dominic Watt reported that /r/ dissimilation is mentioned in
Rippmann (1909) for British English. For American English, I have only seen
the phenomenon mentioned by Mencken (1967), who cites Hempl (1893).

Donca Steriade reported that Romanian has a similar process of /r/
dissimilation through deletion, in words like proprietar ->
propietar 'owner'; intreprindere -> intrepindere, inteprindere


Besides responses to the Linguist List query, some of the examples below
come from discussions on Phonoloblog (, a query to
the American Dialect Society, and an amateur linguist's website
( The examples are all from
American speech, although a few of the same words were also reported for
British dialects.

(1) and (2) give examples where /r/ disappears next to a schwa. The /r/
that deletes is parenthesized. Some words also have vowel syncope, also
indicated with parentheses.

(1) celeb(r)atory, imp(r)opriety, inf(r)astructure, interp(r)et,
Lab(r)ador, ent(r)ep(r)eneur, temp(er)ature, sec(r)etary, spect(r)ogram,
lit(er)ature, p(r)erogative, Trist(r)am Shandy, resp(ir)atory,
vet(er)inarian, propriet(r)ess, terrest(r)ial, inf(r)ared, p(r)oportional

(2) adve(r)sary, ape(r)ture, be(r)serk, gove(r)nor, hambu(r)ger,
paraphe(r)nalia, pa(r)ticular, repe(r)toire, su(r)prise, the(r)mometer,
ve(r)nacular, bomba(r)dier, pe(r)spiration

My original query only asked about onset /r/ deletion as in (1), but I'm
now convinced that coda /r/ deletions in rhotic dialects, as in (2), are
part of the same process. The realizations of /r@/ and /@r/ are pretty
similar in American speech anyway. As Mark Jones points out, in phonetic
terms the process is better described as loss of rhoticity from a schwa.

Note that the /r/ that deletes is usually, but not always, the first /r/ in
the word. In both the /r@/ and /@r/ examples, the preceding consonant is
always labial and/or voiceless (two factors which might contribute to
making the /r/ less perceptible). Has anyone has heard /r/ deletion in
words like `agricultural'?

These /r/ deletions can cause morphological alternations. I can drop the
first /r/ from 'gove(r)nor', but not from 'govern' or
'government'. /r/ dropping is possible in 'hambu(r)ger' but
odd-sounding in 'cheeseburger' or 'burger'.

In a smaller set of words, /r/ deletion leaves behind a full vowel,
sometimes with another consonant appearing in the /r/'s place. A few of
these examples sound rather dialectal, but some are widespread (see Bert
Vaux's dialect survey at
for 'barbiturate').

(3) co(r)ner, o(r)nery, qua(r)ter, tu(r)meric, barbitu(r)ate,
lib(r)ary, ext(r)aordinary, prost(r)ate, Feb[j]uary, p(r)urient,
defib[ju]llator (for defibrillator), f(r)ustrated / f[l]ustrated

When /r/ is replaced by another consonant, the resulting sequence usually
sounds like a semantically related word: 'Feb[j]uary' is like 'Jan[j]uary';
'defib[j]ulator' is like 'fib[j]ula' (loosely related in the sense of both
being medical words); 'flustrated' is like 'flustered'. It seems as if
these relatively major restructurings are facilitated by similarity to
existing words. Also, /r/ deletion in 'prost(r)ate' is probably encouraged
by confusion with 'prostate'.

Finally, there are a few examples of /rVr/ simplification that might be
haplology rather than dissimilation.

(4) deteri(or)ate, hi(er)archy, itiner(ar)y, jur(or), mirr(or),
terr(or)ist, wa(rr)ior

I continue to collect examples, and would be interested in any more that
may occur to you.

Thanks to everyone who replied: Eric Bakovic, Thomas McFadden, Gary Toops,
Karen Ward, Mark Jones, Lise Menn, Jonny Butler, Nora Wiedenmann, Katalin
Mady, Aubrey, Susanne Borgwaldt, Jessica Wirth, Mickey Swart, Jo Tyler,
Melvin Hoffman, David Kamholz, Harry Feldman, Jon H. Bahk-Halberg, Kirk
Hazen, Seth Cable, Bert Vaux, Corinna Anderson, Peter Szigetvari, Blaine
Erickson, Nancy Ritter, Tuuli Adams, Britta Mondorf, Dominic Watt, Donca
Steriade, Aaron Dinkin, Bridget Samuels, Arnold Zwicky. Apologies if I have
accidentally omitted anyone.

--Nancy Hall


Hempl, George (1893) ''Loss of r in English through dissimilation''.
Dialect Notes, Vol. 1, pt. 6, pp. 279-81.

Mencken, H.L. (1967) The American Language

Rippmann, Walter (1909) The Sounds of Spoken English

LL Issue: 17.2235
Date Posted: 03-Aug-2006
Original Query: Read original query


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