Blackburn holding on to letter 'R' despite fears it's dying out from English language

Researchers from Lancaster University say the letter R is at risk of being lost completely in the next few generations. Credit: Unsplash

The letter R is "definitely dying out" in England and is even at risk of being lost completely in the next few generations, according to researchers.

A team from Lancaster University examined the changing use of language, particularly the pronunciation of the 'R' at the end of words like 'nerd', 'bird' and 'her' - something called rhoticity.

While they found that historically, hundreds of years go, people used to pronounce strong Rs, over time these have become much softer.

But there is some hope - the data found the R is very much still rolling in Blackburn, Lancashire.

Lead researcher, Dr Danielle Turton, said: "Speakers from places like Blackburn usually differentiate between pairs of words such as 'stellar' and 'stella', whereas most of England would consider them to be the same."

However, she said, these patterns are becoming much less common, especially in younger people.

"For the youngest speakers in Blackburn, these Rs are very weak, which raises the question of whether future generations will even hear these weak Rs at all, and whether this distinction will eventually fade away.

"Accent change is often like a puddle: it dries up in most places and leave remnants around the edges."

The research, carried out using 28 Blackburn speakers, also found:

  • Rhoticity was stronger in males, a pattern of results which suggests a female-led sound change, a widely documented phenomenon in the sociolinguistic literature. When language changes, women usually have started it.

  • The majority of sample speakers became more rhotic in more formal styles, raising interesting questions about social prestige and clearness of speech, as well as the location of change in the speech community’s consciousness

  • The strongest Rs are found in the oldest men.

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