Lighten Your Dark R

Earlier this week I did a post on Lightening your Dark L . Today we’ll compare that quality and exploration with the nature of vowel R’s.

What’s a vowel R you ask? We distinguish between two kinds of R generally— consonant R, where the /r/ in the spelling comes before a vowel, as in rose, red, around, and vowel R, where the /r/ in the spelling comes after a vowel, as in are, air, ear, or, her, poor. All /r/ sounds, vowel or consonant, are made with essentially the same gesture in the mouth of those with so-called rhotic speech, that is where the vowel R is pronounced. (In many accents, such as a standard British accent, aka Received Pronunciation, General Australian, etc., which are non-rhotic, these vowel R’s are unpronounced, and so we call these accents/speakers non-rhotic.) The degree of r-ishness, the strength of a speakers r-colouring or rhoticity, depends on how the speaker articulates their R’s. In the same way that an L can be either light or dark, we can think of R’s being made in a similar fashion.

The International Phonetic Association, or IPA, calls the consonant R an alveolar approximant. Its IPA symbol is /ɹ/.For some rhotic speakers this is true—I speak with such an articulation for my R sounds. Others speak with a variation from this articulation, with a molar R, where their tongue pulls back and forms a kind of wad of tongue near the back lower molars. The front edge of the tongue generally raises up, but may or may not feel like it is curling, and it’s likely to be quite far back from the alveolar ridge. This molar R is in some ways quite similar to the velarized L that we called the Dark L in our previous post. The back of the tongue is arched up near the soft palate (or velum), which accounts for the "darkness" of this strong R quality. Molar R and Dark L differ in how the front of tongue behaves which makes the two sounds very different from each other.

If you’re someone with a strong vowel R, how does that affect you? It is my belief that strong, dark vowel R does not impede intelligibility, but it does colour your speech in a way that is trapped back in your mouth, with may affect the surrounding vowels and consonants. Also, in terms of expanding the range of what you can do with your speech, strong dark vowel R tends to be hard to "let go of" when you’re trying to do a new accent that has some R colouring but not a lot. I strongly believe that a skilled actor should be able to modify their R colouring at will. So if you only make light R coloured vowels, you need to learn to be able to darken yours, and if you have dark R coloured vowels, you must learn to lighten them.

How to do it:

Start with a non-rhotic -err vowel [ɜ] (like at the end of the word sir without R colouring. Now, make the strongest rhotic version of this as possible. In IPA that would be written with lots of rhoticity diacritics, like this [ɜ˞˞˞˞˞]. Go back and forth between tons of rhoticity and none a few times: [ɜ˞˞˞˞˞ | ɜ | ɜ˞˞˞˞˞ | ɜ | ɜ˞˞˞˞˞]. Now, try gradually adding on the rhotic quality, so you slowly increase your r-ishness: [ɜ ɜ˞ ɜ˞˞ ɜ˞˞˞ ɜ˞˞˞˞ ɜ˞˞˞˞˞]. Now go the other way: [ɜ˞˞˞˞˞ ɜ˞˞˞˞ ɜ˞˞˞ ɜ˞˞ ɜ˞ ɜ]. Now find the middle spot, and stop there for a while on [ɜ˞˞]. Slowly blend back and forth between that and the non-rhotic [ɜ]. At this point, you need to focus in your attention on the most subtle movement of your tongue. What is the smallest amount of rhoticity that you could add? Tune that quality very carefully and once you have it sussed out, try applying it to some words:

  • her, stir, fur, word, myrtle
  • better, actor, colour

Now, try non-rhotic and lightly rhotic versions of centering diphthongs, allowing them to slide either to non-rhotic schwa or to very mildly r-colored schwa:

  • beer, weird, clear, tier
  • bare, chair, heir
  • poor, tour, cure
  • door, core, roar, war
  • star, far, par, catarrh

Slightly more tricky are intervocalic R, that is /r/ between two vowels. We’ll save that for another day…

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.