18. Rhoticization: érhuà

In North American English, many speakers pronounce syllables that are spelled with certain vowels followed by the letter r by curling the tongue to add an r sound to the vowel. Examples include bird, fur, word and sir. This vowel + r combination is called a rhotacized vowel.  Chinese has similarly rhotacized vowels which are caused by adding ér to the end of a syllable. For example:

OriginalRhotacized

In the first example above, is the original word/syllable. After ér is added to the syllable, the new syllable is pronounced as nǎr, which expresses a different meaning from the original word. In the second example above, huā is the original word, but after ér is added to the syllable, the new syllable is pronounced as huār. Although it still means flower, huār implies something cute and small.  People generally consider ér to be a diminutive suffix for nouns, although counter examples to this generalization are not uncommon in Chinese.

This ér suffixation is called érhuà rhoticization in Chinese.  It is most common in the speech varieties of North China, especially in the Beijing dialect, as a diminutive suffix for nouns or a means of words formation. This process induces some phonological changes to the original syllables. This module will focus on these changes.

While you do not need to master all of the phonological changes that érhuà causes, a familiarity with this process will help you to acquire the Chinese phonological system. The spelling of érhuà is simple: just add an r to the original syllable, as you can see in the examples above. But the real pronunciation of rhotacized syllables is quite different. We will go over some major changes caused by érhuà. Note, that for the purpose of highlighting the pronunciation changes, in some cases we have presented an additional spelling of the rhotacized syllables to reflect the changes of the sound. In standard Pinyin, the correct spelling would be the original syllable with an r added to the end.

Please listen to the following exemplar pairs: the left one is the original syllable, the right one is the the correct spelling after ér is added (with a spelling that more accurately reflects the pronunciation in parentheses):

OriginalRhotacized

Did you notice that the ending n is deleted after ér is added?In those cases, the tongue is curled up when pronouncing the original vowel, adding an r-like sound to the end of the syllable.

Please listen to the following exemplar pairs: the left one is the original syllable, the right one is the the correct spelling after ér is added:

OriginalRhotacized

Did you notice that when ér is added to a sound ending with i, the i gets deleted, and the tongue is curled up when pronouncing the original main vowel.

Please listen to the following exemplar pairs: the left one is the original syllable, the right one is the the correct spelling after ér is added:

OriginalRhotacized

Did you notice that the nasal coda ng is somehow preserved? Yes, the original syllable ending with ng becomes a nasalized sound when followed by ér suffixation.

For syllables other than the aforementioned types, ér suffixation generally just adds [r] to the original syllable.

OriginalRhotacized

Due to these changes, different syllables might become similar or the same after ér suffixation. For example:

OriginalRhotacized

Listening Quiz

Listen to the audio and indicate whether what you hear is a rhotacized syllable.

Dictation Quiz

Listen to the following syllables and write down the Pinyin you hear, including the tone. Remember that for ér suffixation, an r is just added to the original Pinyin no matter what changes this suffixation may cause.

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