Thursday, March 17, 2016

How do you pronounce "bear"?

How do you pronounce "bear"?


Monarch the bear.jpg 
The California grizzly bear (Ursus californicus) is the official state animal of California and is honored on the state flag. The last one, Monarch, killed in 1922, is on display at the California Academy of Sciences. Photo by Payton from chicago, usa - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=408136

A follower on my PronunciationDoctor Youtube ChannelEvan, posted this question after watching my video Phrase by Phrase Ch14 SF2 /ɛ/ as in every vs. /ey/ as in say. He wrote,

Thanks Marsha, how about bear/ˈbeɚ/, e is a single syllable here, is it /ɛ/? how do we pronounce this?

Good question! The sound /r/ colors, or affects, the preceding vowel to a greater or lesser degree depending on a person's accent. "Bear" is considered to be one syllable. Merriam-Webster Dictionary shows the pronunciation in symbols in the following way. 

bear noun \ˈber\

You can click the underlined word to see the whole page and then click the sound icon to hear the pronunciation. Can you hear a slight schwa /ə/ sound before the /r/?

In this second example, also a general American accent on Dictionary.com, there's more of a schwa /ə/ sound before the /r/:

bear [bair]


The /r/ sound, although commonly called a consonant, is quite different from other consonants. Like the sound /l/, the English sound /r/ is known in phonetics as a liquid consonant, or simply a liquid. Other consonants produce complete closures, for example, the /t/ in tight and the /m/ in mom, or cause friction, such as the /f/ in fife and the /ʧ/ in church. In contrast, a liquid requires a movement of the tongue to produce just a partial closure.

In most American dialects, the /r/ is pronounced after a vowel sound, and as the tongue moves into the /r/ position, it pulls the vowel in a different direction than when followed by another consonant. A schwa /ə/ sound is typically introduced before the tip of the tongue curls back.

This makes words like "flower" and "flour" sound identical. Note how Merriam-Webster Dictionary shows the pronunciation in symbols, with the schwa as an optional sound leading to the /r/.

flower noun  flow·er  \ˈflau̇(-ə)r\
flour noun \ˈflau̇(-ə)r\


Besides the common, standard, or general American English accent, there are also r-less dialects, where speakers don't pronounce the final /r/ sound at all. They may use a schwa /ə/ sound instead. A timely example is U.S. Senator from Vermont and candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. President in the 2016 election, whose voice we have been hearing often as he campaigns against former U.S. Secretary of State and former Senator from New York Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic nominee. The speech of Bernie Sanders demonstrates an r-less accent of American English. If you watch the video Why Bernie Sanders tawks that way, published by Vox, after viewing the brief introduction, scrub forward to 1:53 to focus on the part about his systematic lack of final /r/ sounds. While I pronounce his surname Sanders /sændɚz/, he refers to himself as /sændəz/, without an /r/ sound.


Let's go back to the the word "bear", the word that engendered this article. The Cambridge online Dictionary gives two pronunciations, one American and the other British. Compare them at the following link.


So, Evan, that you've heard a few variations, which way would you like to pronounce "bear"?

2 comments: