19th century sound change in Kent: rhoticity


The distribution of rhoticity by the eight informants: four had the earlier fully rhotic pronunciation (O), one was partially rhotic (P), while three had acquired the new non-rhotic pronunciation (N).

The map shows that four informants still had the older rhotic pronunciation. Three were fully non-rhotic and one was partially rhotic. The table below suggests that perhaps 50% of the county still retained the old pronunciation during 1865-1895. This means that the origin of this change is more recent than THOUGHT, starting perhaps around 1850 with around 50% losing some degree of rhoticity by 1865-1895.

This post continues from the introductory Nineteenth century sound change in Kent, where the informants are introduced and the background presented.


The numbers of informants with new (N) and old pronunciations (O), for each of the ten sound changes, ordered from the left by the total number of O acquired, assuming a progression from the earliest to the most recent. The grand total for each sound change is 8, the number of informants.

Rhoticity refers to the pronunciation of /r/. Originally, all instances of /r/ were pronounced in all dialects of English, but it was no longer being pronounced in syllable codas by the 15th century in Lincolnshire and East Anglia (revealed by unusual spellings in manuscripts like wills and private letters, reported by Wyld, 1936, A History of Modern Colloquial English). Since then it has been spreading across the country (reviewed by Britain, 2009, One foot in the grave, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 196-197:121-155) and had reached Kent by about 1850 (inferred from Ellis, 1889, On Early English Pronunciation, Vol. 5). This means instances like bar, cart, carter were no longer pronounced.

Ellis had heard fully rhotic speech in the towns of Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone, but gave no ages of informants or dates. Otherwise, /r/ had “a tendency to degenerate into the ordinary English vocal r, a mere vowel (ə ɐ) … the form it retains in London”. In the coastal town of Margate, a student teacher’s /r/ “followed London use” including “euphonic insertion”, which I understand is non-rhotic with linking and intrusive r. Regarding a student teacher at Charing (near Warren Street, see map above), Ellis noted “the (r) was quite Cockney”. These student teachers, presumably born around 1850, demonstrate that loss of rhoticity was not only occurring on the estuary coast but had also spread to rural areas inland. They were training at the esteemed Whitelands College in Chelsea (now Roehampton University) but there was no suggestion they were modifying their obviously regional speech towards RP.

Ellis reported the Kentish /r/ as a “burr”, which usually meant uvular (Sweet, Primer of Phonetics, 1892). This is how I also perceive the informants’ /r/, and my own, a uvular approximant. This is something that deserves further investigation. Additionally, the standard textbook account of the production of uvular consonants like [q ɢ χ ʀ ʁ] is unfortunately misleading. Direct visual inspection of uvular articulations is obscured posteriorly by the faucial arches and the oropharyngeal isthmus, hence the traditional, but deceptive, focus on the visible uvula as the place of articulation for “uvular” consonants. However, the critical constriction (or occlusion for stops) is located in the upper pharynx, at the level of the superior pharyngeal constrictors, the same location as is used for [o ɔ] (Wood 1979, A radiographic analysis of constriction locations for vowels, Journal of Phonetics 7:25−43; 1997, A cinefluorographic study of articulator gestures: Examples from Greenlandic, Speech Communication 22:207-225; 2006, The articulation of uvular consonants: Swedish, Working Papers 52:145-148, Lund). Rosewarne (1984, Estuary English, Times Educational Supplement, 19 October) puzzled the phonetics community by describing a unique Estuary English /r/, “similar to a general American r but it does not have retroflection”. He might have been unwittingly referring to this same uvular approximant.


Sound examples

Earlier fully rhotic examples

A partially rhotic example

New non-rhotic examples

©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2016


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