This week American presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist, almost defeated his better-known rival Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus.
By presidential standards, Senator Sanders’ Brooklyn (New York) accent is about as unusual as his politics. In American movies or TV dramas of the past decades, you’re more likely to have heard it from gangsters or New York cab drivers than from political leaders. (Woody Allen, six years older than Sen. Sanders, was also raised in Brooklyn, but his accent is not quite as strong.)
One of the big differences between Bernie Sanders’ accent and the majority accent General American (spoken by Hillary Clinton) is the pronunciation of r. General American pronounces an r sound always and only where r is written. But Sen. Sanders, like most people in England (and Wales, Australia and New Zealand), pronounces only some written r’s, and pronounces some r sounds which aren’t written. The basic rule is that such speakers pronounce r only when a vowel sound follows. So we hear all the r’s in revolution, try to protect the interests and very proud:
But Sen. Sanders doesn’t pronounce the r’s in not fair, our government, more wealth, all over and dollars:
This means that a word-final r is not pronounced if the next word begins with a consonant, as in for‿starvation wages, but is pronounced if the next word begins with a vowel, as in for‿our kids:
As in England (and Wales, etc), this difference is found after several vowels which are not written with r. An example is the word idea, which acquires an r sound if a vowel follows:
There’s one vowel which New Yorkers like Bernie Sanders pronounce with an r sound which is not heard from the English, Welsh, etc. This is the NURSE vowel, as in journal, universities, work and world:
So he pronounces his own name with this r-coloured NURSE vowel in Bernie, like journal; but the r is missing from Sanders as it is from dollars:
Non-rhotic speakers, whether in Brooklyn or Britain, pronounce words like Stella and stellar the same. That is, such words are not phonetically differentiated in the minds of these speakers. As a result, American non-rhotic speakers may occasionally employ their r-coloured vowel in words which have no historic (written) r. A nice example of this occurred in Sen. Sanders’ speech after the Iowa caucus. At first he pronounced Iowa with final ə, but later he added r-colouring, as if it were Iowar:
Sometimes English actors mistakenly do this sort of thing when attempting a rhotic American accent.
I wrote a longer blog post about r, with many audio illustrations, which you can find here.