LINGUIST List 17.2235

Thu Aug 03 2006

Sum: /r/ Dissimilation

Editor for this issue: Kevin Burrows <>

Directory         1.    Nancy Hall, /r/ Dissimilation

Message 1: /r/ Dissimilation
Date: 02-Aug-2006
From: Nancy Hall <>
Subject: /r/ Dissimilation

Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue: 17.2084

Regarding Query:

I recently posted a request for literature on and examples of a sporadic pattern of /r/ dissimilation in English. There were dozens of interesting replies and space does not allow me to do justice to all the points they raised, so this summary will mostly be confined to reporting literature and examples.

Dominic Watt reported that /r/ dissimilation is mentioned in Rippmann (1909) for British English. For American English, I have only seen the phenomenon mentioned by Mencken (1967), who cites Hempl (1893).

Donca Steriade reported that Romanian has a similar process of /r/ dissimilation through deletion, in words like proprietar -> propietar 'owner'; intreprindere -> intrepindere, inteprindere 'enterprise'.


Besides responses to the Linguist List query, some of the examples below come from discussions on Phonoloblog (, a query to the American Dialect Society, and an amateur linguist's website ( The examples are all from American speech, although a few of the same words were also reported for British dialects.

(1) and (2) give examples where /r/ disappears next to a schwa. The /r/ that deletes is parenthesized. Some words also have vowel syncope, also indicated with parentheses.

(1) celeb(r)atory, imp(r)opriety, inf(r)astructure, interp(r)et, Lab(r)ador, ent(r)ep(r)eneur, temp(er)ature, sec(r)etary, spect(r)ogram, lit(er)ature, p(r)erogative, Trist(r)am Shandy, resp(ir)atory, vet(er)inarian, propriet(r)ess, terrest(r)ial, inf(r)ared, p(r)oportional

(2) adve(r)sary, ape(r)ture, be(r)serk, gove(r)nor, hambu(r)ger, paraphe(r)nalia, pa(r)ticular, repe(r)toire, su(r)prise, the(r)mometer, ve(r)nacular, bomba(r)dier, pe(r)spiration

My original query only asked about onset /r/ deletion as in (1), but I'm now convinced that coda /r/ deletions in rhotic dialects, as in (2), are part of the same process. The realizations of /rr/ examples, the preceding consonant is always labial and/or voiceless (two factors which might contribute to making the /r/ less perceptible). Has anyone has heard /r/ deletion in words like `agricultural'?

These /r/ deletions can cause morphological alternations. I can drop the first /r/ from 'gove(r)nor', but not from 'govern' or 'government'. /r/ dropping is possible in 'hambu(r)ger' but odd-sounding in 'cheeseburger' or 'burger'.

In a smaller set of words, /r/ deletion leaves behind a full vowel, sometimes with another consonant appearing in the /r/'s place. A few of these examples sound rather dialectal, but some are widespread (see Bert Vaux's dialect survey at for 'barbiturate').

(3) co(r)ner, o(r)nery, qua(r)ter, tu(r)meric, barbitu(r)ate, lib(r)ary, ext(r)aordinary, prost(r)ate, Feb[j]uary, p(r)urient, defib[ju]llator (for defibrillator), f(r)ustrated / f[l]ustrated

When /r/ is replaced by another consonant, the resulting sequence usually sounds like a semantically related word: 'Feb[j]uary' is like 'Jan[j]uary'; 'defib[j]ulator' is like 'fib[j]ula' (loosely related in the sense of both being medical words); 'flustrated' is like 'flustered'. It seems as if these relatively major restructurings are facilitated by similarity to existing words. Also, /r/ deletion in 'prost(r)ate' is probably encouraged by confusion with 'prostate'.

Finally, there are a few examples of /rVr/ simplification that might be haplology rather than dissimilation.

(4) deteri(or)ate, hi(er)archy, itiner(ar)y, jur(or), mirr(or), terr(or)ist, wa(rr)ior

I continue to collect examples, and would be interested in any more that may occur to you.

Thanks to everyone who replied: Eric Bakovic, Thomas McFadden, Gary Toops, Karen Ward, Mark Jones, Lise Menn, Jonny Butler, Nora Wiedenmann, Katalin Mady, Aubrey, Susanne Borgwaldt, Jessica Wirth, Mickey Swart, Jo Tyler, Melvin Hoffman, David Kamholz, Harry Feldman, Jon H. Bahk-Halberg, Kirk Hazen, Seth Cable, Bert Vaux, Corinna Anderson, Peter Szigetvari, Blaine Erickson, Nancy Ritter, Tuuli Adams, Britta Mondorf, Dominic Watt, Donca Steriade, Aaron Dinkin, Bridget Samuels, Arnold Zwicky. Apologies if I have accidentally omitted anyone.

--Nancy Hall


Hempl, George (1893) ''Loss of r in English through dissimilation''. Dialect Notes, Vol. 1, pt. 6, pp. 279-81.

Mencken, H.L. (1967) The American Language

Rippmann, Walter (1909) The Sounds of Spoken English

Linguistic Field(s): Phonology