Episode 160: Approximant-ly English

In this episode, we explore the sounds represented by the letters L and R. Linguists refer to these sounds as ‘approximants,’ and they are some of the most challenging sounds in the English language. They are consonants with vowel-like qualities. Over time, they have shown a tendency to disappear and reappear, and even switch places in words. They also have a history of altering the vowel sounds that appear before them. In this episode, we explore the evolution of the ‘L’ and ‘R’ sounds in the English language.


25 thoughts on “Episode 160: Approximant-ly English

  1. Hi Kevin
    As always I loved the pod this month. I’m in Ireland so my ears are attuned a little differently. You say “R sound” many many times in this episode. All I can hear is “arsehound” which makes for an altogether different listening experience.

    Also I should say (and you did elude to it). The older form of the farm, dark etc. are still very much pronounced that way in the midlands of and to a lesser extent the West of Ireland

    Keep up the excellent work


  2. Hell Sir, I am from Pakistan I am dioing English BS . I found this podcast very usefull your work is excellent better than attending college . Thank you for your work

  3. You mention Scots retaining ‘mickle’ as a form of ‘much’. That’s not quite the case. ‘Mickle’ means small or few, and ‘muckle’ means much or many.

    Hence the exhortation to old-fashioned Scottish thrift:

    ‘Many a mickle makes a muckle’.

  4. As always, highly informative but easily digestible. Thank you.
    I hope the book form of your podcasts may come out some day.
    But you still have four centuries to cover!

  5. Very informative episode. Thanks!

    I attended a parochial school for grades 1-6, and learned to read and spell primarily through a very strong phonics program. To this day, after more than fifty years, I remember the term this curriculum used for ar, er, ir, or, and ur: “murmur dipthongs.”

  6. My grandmother was a Bostonian of the old school. She told me another form of the sentence you quote as a summing-up of the Boston accent (she was born in 1908 and I assume it’s closer to the original, if not actually it): “Chahlie Pahkah drove down from Bah Hahbah and pahked his cah in Hahvahd Squayah.” Note Mr. Parker is parking in Harvard Square, not Harvard Yard, which has never been open for car parking.

  7. Hi Kevin,

    As usual, the recent episode is excellent. I typically enjoy the podcast because of the parallels to other Germanic languages. Your statement about the early disappearance of the l in words such as each, which, such, etc. reminded me of these same words in Dutch where the l has been retained: elk, welk, and zulk.


  8. I’ve noticed that in British English, they sometimes add an “R” sound to the end of a word that ends with a vowel and followed by a word that begins with a vowel, eg: “I saw(r) a boat.” Would that be an example of rhotacization, or R-coloring, or both?

    • It’s called a ‘linking R’ or an ‘intrusive R.’ I didn’t address it in this episode because I’m saving it for a future episode about the loss of the ‘r’ sound in England in the 1700s. Stay tuned for that!

      • And a topical occurrence of this is in the NZ Prime Minister’s name – where most news presenters and political commentators etc say Jacinda r Ardern.

  9. Kevin, another great episode! Pardon me for saying so, but instead of describing non-rhotic as dropping /r/ after a vowel, wouldn’t it be better to say /r/ is dropped at the end of a word or before a consonant? If /r/ comes after a vowel and is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced, as in ‘rural’.
    But, putting that trifle aside, I want to say how astonishing is the way you put together such a huge amount of content and tell the story so interestingly! It is a marvel! May the gods bless your production!

  10. Kevin,
    I just re-listened to this episode, which reminded me of a question I had the first time I listened: In the title, why is the word “approximant” used instead of “approximate”? From what I could tell, you (Kevin) pronounced the word as the standard “approximate.” I just searched online for “approximant” and learned that it is used specifically for this topic, the relationship of r & l and w & y. OK, now I get it! But where did the word “approximant” come from? Did a linguist or phoneticist simply invent it, tweaking “approximate”? If you mentioned the specific meaning and origin of this word, then I missed it. Just curious.
    Thanks as always for a fascinating discussion.

    • The words “approximate” and “approximant” are ultimately the same word, but “approximant” is the version uses in linguistics. I think I pronounced the word as “approximate” in the episode and only realized after recording the episode that the linguistic term is spelled differently.

      • Kevin, I hadn’t noticed that you responded to my question. Now I understand what “approximant” refers to and how it relates to the familiar word “approximate.” Thank you!

  11. Thanks for another great episode Kevin.
    You mentioned the pronunciation of Derby as “Durby” in the USA and “Darby” in England. Correct – but for the record, my grandfather lived in the county of Yorkshire in England and pronounced the city of Derby as “Durby”.

    • Thanks. The pronunciation of [er] as ‘ar’ is discussed in several episodes, and as I noted in those episodes, there was once much more variation in the pronunciation as both ‘ar’ and ‘er.’ Today, it has become mostly regional, but I am not surprised that variation was more common in the recent past.

  12. Thank you for this episode, which I just listened to (I am a bit behind, as you can see). Although for the most part, I find this podcast of great quality, just like all other ones, as a linguist, I cannot help wishing that when matters having to do with phonetics and phonology, Kevin would run his script by someone who is really an expert in these matters. Some of the explanations regarding articulatory phonetics, for example, leave much to be desired. I am sure there are plenty of linguists who would love to assist. I am no expert in English phonetics or historical phonology myself, but when I hear about sounds being produced in the front of the mouth and things like that, I despair. Thanks! 🙂

    • Well, my email is freely available (kevin@historyofenglishpodcast.com). If you have specific comments or concerns, you can always send them to me directly, and I can address them. I have revised episodes based on such feedback. I prefer that option to more general comments in the public forum that I can’t really address.

  13. Catching up on this episode this morning, I came up with my very own “dad joke” that I wanted to share. It really only works when spoken aloud, but . . .

    The differences between American and British English can be very subtle. For example, in American English, we make the R-sound like this: Ruh! Ruh! In British English, on the other hand, this is the R-Sound:

    [Then you make a farting noise.]

    Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. Thanks for the podcast. It’s become my all-time favorite.

  14. Growing up in Northumberland with Scottish heritage it bothered me that I couldn’t say a rolled ‘R’ so would practice the phrase “round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran”

    Another fascinating episode , thank you.

  15. Funnily enough, in Dutch the R sound can also be pronounced as the French R, rolling R or something close to an American R, depending on once local accent, or place within the word.

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