How Do You Pronounce “Bear”?

May 10th, 2016 | By | Category: Interest Groups, TOP
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—Evan Wu, a follower on my Pronunciation Doctor YouTube channel, posted this question after watching my video Phrase by Phrase Ch14 SF2 /ɛ/ as in every vs. /es/ 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?

And here is the Pronunciation Doctor’s answer:

image of California's last grizzly bear at California Academy of Sciences

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)

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, 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 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 other consonants. A schwa /ə/ sound is typically introduced before the tip of the tongue curls up.

This makes words such as “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, in which 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 US President in the 2016 election, whose voice we have been hearing often as he campaigns against former US 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 refer to Bernie as Mr. Sanders /sændɚz/, he pronounces his surname /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:

bear, AmE and BrE

So, Evan, now that you’ve heard a few variations, which way would you like to pronounce “bear”?

TOP-IG cofounder and co-coordinator Marsha Chan is the Pronunciation Doctor on YouTube, Sunburst Media President, and Mission College faculty emeritus.


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