R You Speedy?

In my last post, we covered the similarities and differences between bunched /r/ and apical /r/, made with the back of the tongue and the front of the tongue
respectively. The front /r/ we called an apical /r/ because it was
made with the apex of the tongue. In this post,
we’ll see if we can get that apical /r/ up to speed, particularly between two
vowels, a so called intervocalic /r/. For
everything we’re doing here in this step, be sure to use the apical /r/, not
the bunched /r/.

In some accents, words like Harry, Larry, parallel, barrister,
carry, marriage, arabesque,
are not part of the square lexical
set, but rather they are part of the trap set.
Thus, Harry is pronounced as it is in the Harry
films. In this setting,
the vowel in the initial syllable behaves very differently than it does in
the square set.
In the square set,
the vowel tends to be a centering diphthong, where the the initial vowel
offglides into an r-coloured schwa before the /r/ that begins the second
syllable, so it is pronounced “Har-ry,IPA [ˈhɛɚ.ɹɨ].
When this group of words is part of the trap lexical
set, there is no /r/ quality in the first syllable, so we get “Ha-rry,” IPA [ˈhæ.ɹɨ].

For speakers who are used to using the square set,
this change of having no /r/ quality before the
syllable break is quite new and may present a challenge. To practice this style
of pronunciation, we’ll do a little drill to get the sense of the first syllable.
Let’s use Ha-rry as
our word to practise with. Start by saying hat a few times: hat,
hat, hat
now say it without the /t/: ha,
ha, ha
[hæ]. Now take
that syllable and add a "ree" [ɹi] on the
end: Ha-rry. Repeat it a few times: Harry,
Harry, Harry.
Finally, try that list of words, applying this sound to
them: Ha-rry, La-rry, pa-rallel, ba-rrister, ca-rry, ma-rriage,
. Is it still a challenge? If so, try this next step. If not,
jump down to Nuh-Luh-Ruh-Luh.

Take that list of words and isolate the first syllable by adding a /t/ to
the end of the syllable. This will set you up to nail the first vowel sound
correctly, and then you can go back and do it without the /t/. So try:

Harry: hat, ha-, ha-rry, Harry.

Larry: lat, la-, la-rry, Larry.

Parallel: pat, pa-, pa-rallel, parallel.

Barrister: bat, ba-, ba-rrister, barrister.

Carry: cat, ca-, ca-rry, carry.

Marriage: mat, ma-, ma-rriage, marriage.

Arabesque: at, a-, a-rabesque, arabesque.


To work on the speed and agility of the tongue, we need to work the apical
aspect of the /r/. To set ourselves up, we’ll focus on the apex of the tongue
(its tip) with /n/ and /l/. To begin, let’s alternate between the two sounds,
using the vowel “uh,” [ʌ], with “nuh-luh-nuh-luh” [ˈnʌ.lʌˈnʌ.lʌˈnʌ.lʌˈnʌ.lʌ].
Make sure that your tongue is working like a flap, and that your jaw is relaxed.
Once you’ve got that going quickly, we can begin to work on replacing the /n/
with /r/.

The apical /r/, whose IPA symbol is [ɹ], should be
made just behind where the the /n/ is made, so test this assumption with an
alternation of “nuh-ruh-nuh-ruh” [ˈnʌ.ɹʌˈnʌ.ɹʌˈnʌ.ɹʌˈnʌ.ɹʌ].
If you’re bunching the /r/ you’ll find that your tongue is pulling back dramatically
on the /r/. Resist that temptation!

The next step is to alternate /r/ with /l/, “ruh-luh-ruh-luh” [ˈɹʌ.lʌˈɹʌ.lʌˈɹʌ.lʌˈɹʌ.lʌ].
Keep the action simple and delicate, focusing on the front of your tongue.
Keep the jaw relaxed.

Now, we’ll go to the complete drill, alternating “nuh-luh” with “ruh-luh”: [ˈnʌ.lʌˈɹʌ.lʌˈnʌ.lʌˈɹʌ.lʌ].
Start slowly, and then begin to build up the speed. If you’ve been rounding
your lips on the /r/, see if you can relax your lips, forcing the full action
to lie in the front of your tongue, not in the back of your tongue or in your

This is a great drill for developing greater precision with the front of your
tongue, and should be used frequently.

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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