Why isn't the letter 'R' a vowel--seriously?

This has bugged me for a long time and now my wife and I are arguing about it. I hear the letter ‘R’ as it is spoken in English (at least where I live in the US) and can’t tell why it’s a consonant. What is different about it compared to aeiou? I mean physically, it is similar to any other dipthong sound. Like in the word RIVER. Where does the r end and the i begin? Where does the e end and the r begin? Thanks.

Where does the I end and V begin? They flow. R is a consonant.

In “river”, the first “r” is a conconant and the second a vowel. In some dialects, however, the “e” is pronounced and then both "r"s are consonants. Not In any US dialect I know, but many foreign speakers pronounce the “e” separately. Cech has the same thing, which is why there is a hockey player whose first name is Petr, a more phonetic spelling.

I’m not sure how this answers the question. The V clearly begins when the upper teeth touch the bottom lip, creating noise. The difference between a V and an F is that the V is voiced, while the F isn’t. I’m not so sure of the difference between the R and the I. I also don’t see why the first R would be a consonant and the second a vowel. What is the difference physically or phonetically? Thanks for pointing out that different dialects may handle it differently.

I think the OP’s point is that in most American accents, the “r” is not pronounced with any obstruction of the air flow. In general American, there’s a pretty good argument that it’s not a consonant, unlike the rolled, trilled, and uvular R’s of Europe.

It does act like a semi-vowel a lot of the time, like “w” and “y.” But that is a peculiarity of American pronunciation. It is clearly a consonant in British English, as well is in almost every other language on the planet, in which it is either flipped or rolled with the tip of the tonge. It’s only natural we would consider it one as well.

On a side note, there are words in Czech in which “r” is technically a vowel, because a syllable would have none otherwise. “Smrt” (death) is a good example.

OK then how come “an river” sounds stupid?

Where does the (insert consanant) end and the i begin in…


lot’s of consonant sounds and vowel sounds blend together.

R is not a vowel because (in English) it can not be spoken alone. When the ER sound is said, you’re actually saying a schwa sound (or another one of the similar central vowel sounds) and then the R sound. The R can be very vocal compared to other consonants, which is why you’re thinking it sounds like a vowel. And as Griffin mentioned, the sound is continuous and difficult to separate.

Any sound that can be sustained can be used as a vowel. Of English letters, this also applies to f, h, l, m, n, s, v, w, and z (What’s the sound of a person snoring? Where’s the vowel in that word?). The question is really just why those sounds aren’t typically used as vowels in English.

Jwest77, welcome aboard!

The short answer is that not all consonants are created equal:

Do read through that article, and follow a few of the links within to learn more. You’ve find that phonetically, the line between consonant and vowel is not particularly clear-cut.

Are you, really? There is no movement of any part of the mouth that would indicate a change from one sound to another. Also, the sound itself does not undergo any change from what you designate as the vowel towards the R.

But still, “an river” sounds awkward. If it started with a vowel it would sound fine.

The “ou” sound as in house cannot be spoken alone. It is a dipthong. What’s the difference?

I know R is not a vowel in Spanish or [insert language], that’s why I said American English. Of course all sounds blend together: that’s called speaking. “An river” sounds dumb for the same reason “an universe” does.

I still think that physically, an R is the same as an A, but different from a D or a G. Say them out loud and pay attention to what your mouth does. The long A sound is a dipthong as well. I repeat, what is it that makes R a consonant?

While this can vary among speakers, the vast majority of English speakers produce this as what’s known as a rhotacized vowel – that is, a vowel “colored” by the presence of a nearby /r/ sound. The second vowel in “river” is almost always pronounced as a rhotacized schwa – a single phoneme.

Again, realize that the difference between consonants and vowels is not concrete. The “ou” sound can be analyzed phonetically as either a sequence of the two vowels /a/ + /u/, or as a vowel+approximant string: /a/+/w/.

It’s not a black-and-white situation, in other words. There are many shades of gray between consonant and vowel.

Forget the diphthong “long A” in English. It, too, can be analyzed as ending in an approximant (/e/+/j/ where /j/ = English “y”). Consider instead the “a” sound in Bach.

You can pronounce “ara” with an American semivowel “r”, and note how it is distinct from the preceding and trailing “a” vowels.

Now replace that “r” in “ara” with an “a”, yielding “aaa”. Now you can clearly see how approximant “r” differs from vowel “a”.

You’re simplifying the rule too much (and since we receive the rule in elementary school, it’s no wonder many of our cherished grammar rules are not always correct).

The article a becomes an only in front of certain vowels. Most notably vowel sounds which would get altered through elision (gliding them together into a dipthong or tripthong). As this thread discussion points out, the /r/ sound and /y/ sound in English, though classified as consonants, are indistinguishable from vowels. However, because of the way the /r/ and /y/ is formed, there is no need to protect the a by changing it to an an.

Note the British pronunciation (and some Americans) change the article to an in front of historic precisely because the /h/ is so vowel like.

In response to the whole thread…

The distinction between vowel and consonant is way too gross a categorization of phonemes. The very fact that most people aren’t aware of their mispronunciations of some phonemes and their ignorance of the existence of dipthongs shows how phonetically ignorant American English speakers are in toto.

What’s the difference between a vowel and its “r controlled” version? Let’s face it, they’re two unique vowel sounds.


I thought surely this thread would be about the R in the Celtic accents. When a Scot says “world,” you hear two syllables; “werr-uld.” Rroberrt Burr-uns.

Without getting into schwas and dipthongs and all that other stuff, I was taught that one of the requirements of a vowel was that it was needed to complete a syllable.

In English words (and I’m sure someone will come up with an obscure exception), a syllable can not be formed without one of the following letters: a e i o u y. (That’s why it’s a e i o u and sometimes y. Y is sometimes needed to complete a syllable. Such as in syllable. It’s not a vowel in the word Yellow.)

The letter “r” can’t complete a syllable.

The “a” or “an” rule depends on the next sound. If the next sound is that of a vowel, use “an”. An apple. An eight. An orange.

I’ve seen some people trying to call “H” a vowel and throw “an” in front of it, but if you pronounce the h in historic, it’s “a historic”. If you pronounce it “istoric” it’s “an historic”. Same with herb. Do you pronounce the h or do you say “erb”?

Anyway, that’s what I was taught and what makes sense. Someone will be along shortly to make things more difficult and obscure.

Websters Third New International Dictionary (unabridged):

Vowel: one of a class of speech sounds in the articulation of which the oral part of the breath channel is not blocked and is not constricted enough to cause audible friction. Examples include o in the English “hot” and ü in the German word fünf.

Consonant: one of a class of speech sounds characterized by constriction or closure at one or more points in the breath channel.

Based on these definitions, it seems to me that the American English “R” more closely resembles the definition of a vowel. I also think that if one considers “R” to constrict the breath channel, then the German “ü” does as well.

Websters also states: “Apparently there are many, especially among writers of textbooks on phonics and teachers in the elementary schools, who are of the opinion that there can be no syllable without a vowel. Every dictionary in line of succession from, and including Noah Webster’s original dictionary of 1828 shows vowelless syllables.” p. 32a of my 1986 edition.