Open-mid central unrounded vowel
In English, both in Received Pronunciation and in General American, the IPA phonetic symbol /ɜː/ corresponds to the vowel sound in words like "nurse", "turn", "word" and "girl" (/nɜːrs, tɜːrn, wɜːrd/ and /gɜːrl/).
At the advice of Clive Upton the Concise Oxford Dictionary altered the British tradition and now uses /əː/ instead of /ɜː/; later Oxford Dictionaries Online followed the same convention. Linguist Jack Windsor Lewis said "This has the advantage of reducing the total number of unfamiliar symbols to be assimilated by the general user". However his verdict is "as things are, it doesn't now seem worthwhile changing what we have".
Some American dictionaries use /ɜ/ or /ɝ/ instead of /ɜː/. Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary uses /ɚ/ both for /ər/ (unstressed) and /ɜːr/ (stressed). /ɝ/ and /ɚ/ are called r-colored vowels.
Silent /r/[edit | edit source]
In Received Pronunciation /ɜːr/ is pronounced [ɜː] or [əː] unless it is followed by a vowel, i.e. the "r" is normally silent unless it is followed by a vowel.
In General American the "r" is always pronounced, either as [ɜɹ], [ɝ] or [ɝ].
There are places in the United Kingdom where the "r" is pronounced, and places in North America where it is not pronounced.
Common words[edit | edit source]
Some common words containing /ɜ:/ include the following:
- With "er": certain - concern - determine - her - nerve - perfect - person - service - term - verb - were
- With "ear": early - earn - earth - heard - learn - search
- With "ur": burn - hurt - murder - return - surface - Thursday - turn - urban
- With "ir": bird - birthday - circle - circuit - circulation - dirty - firm - girl - shirt - sir - skirt - stir - third - thirsty - thirty -virtual - virtue
- With "or": word - work - world - worse - worst - worth
- Others: journalist - journey
Less common words[edit | edit source]
- With "er": certify - fern - herb - herd - Mercury /ˈmɜːrkjəriː/ - merge - kerb - stern - thermal
- With "ear": pearl
- With "ur": curb - curly - fur - surgeon - urgent
- With "ir": Birmingham /ˈbɜːrmɪŋəm/ - fir - flirt
- With "or": attorney - worm
- With "our": courteous
- With "eur": connoisseur /kɒnəˈsɜːr/ - entrepreneur /ɒntrəprəˈnɜːr/
Since in American English /ɜː/ is always followed by /r/, the pronunciation of hors d'oeuvre (appetizer) has an unwritten /r/: /ɔːr ˈdɜːrv/. In Received Pronunciation the /r/ is not pronounced. See  for a phonetic misspelling of hors d'oeuvre.
Spelling anomaly[edit | edit source]
- colonel /ˈkɜːrnəl/
Homophones[edit | edit source]
- birth - berth; colonel - kernel; earn - urn; fir - fur; heard - herd; tern - turn.
These words don't rhyme[edit | edit source]
- early - dearly; heard - beard; were - here; worm - storm;
Variant pronunciations[edit | edit source]
/ɜː/ and /ʌ/[edit | edit source]
- RP /ʌ/, GA /ɜː/: borough /ˈbʌrə,BrE ˈbɜːrəʊAmE/ - concurrence - concurrent - courage - currant - currency - current - hurry - nourish - occurrence - thorough /ˈθʌrə,BrE ˈθɜːrəʊAmE/ - worry
- RP and GA /ɜː/: blurry - concurring - furry - occurring - preferring - referral - referring - stirring
Six ways to spell /sɜːr/[edit | edit source]
- sermon, sirloin, search, surgeon, certain, circle
Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1[edit | edit source]
Preconceived ideas and other interferences from L1 obviously interfere in many cases with how students perceive - and pronounce - sounds/words in English. The following sections aims to point out some of the most typical difficulties teachers and students may encounter regarding pronunciation.
Spanish[edit | edit source]
/ɜː/ is completely foreign to Spanish speakers.
In the case of native English words, the Spanish adaptations normally use a spelling pronunciation, as in "sterling" translated to esterlina or "flirt" translated to flirtear. This habit is often used when speaking English, such as pronouncing "bird" similar to "beard" or "word" similar to "ward".
References[edit | edit source]
- Oxford Dictionaries Online, Key to pronunciations (British and World English dictionary). See əː as in her.
- IPA vowel symbols for British English in dictionaries, Section 7. /əː/ versus /ɜː/.
- Wikipedia. English-language vowel changes before historic /r/ — Hurry-furry merger.