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English accents are commonly divided into two main groups: rhotic speakers pronounce a historical rhotic consonant (/r/) in all instances, whereas non-rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ only before or between vowels. For example, a rhotic speaker pronounces words like hard and butter approximately as /ˈhɑrd/ and /ˈbʌtər/, whereas a non-rhotic speaker “drops” or “deletes” the r sound, pronouncing the words /ˈhɑːd/ and /ˈbʌtə/. The loss of historical /r/ has spread to all the dialects of modern England (except the South West, the southern West Midlands, and parts of West Lancashire), as well as in the dialects of Southern Hemisphere English and some parts of the southern and eastern coastal United States. Historical /r/ is preserved in most dialects of Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Canada.
The English dialects of Scotland, Ireland, and most of the United States and Canada preserve historical /r/, and are termed the rhotic varieties. The non-rhotic varieties, in which historical /r/ has been lost except before vowels, include all the dialects of modern England except the South West, the southern West Midlands, and parts of West Lancashire, as well as the dialects of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some parts of the southern and eastern coastal United States.
Loss of postvocalic /r/ began sporadically in informal speech in the 15th century, and by the 17th century postvocalic /r/ was weakened but still universally present. In the mid-18th century it was still pronounced in most environments, but may occasionally have been deleted entirely, especially after low vowels. By the 1790s, /r/-less pronunciation had become common in London and surrounding areas, and was increasing in use. By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety.
For more examples of r-dropping, see:
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