Posted by: Casey Lybrand | August 11, 2010

To R or not to R, that is the question.

Agatha82 of Here Be Dragons asked a question about spelling which relates to rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciation. I’m going to answer that for Word Wednesday this week. [1]

92/366 asses!

92/366 asses! by coldpants, on Flickr

Note: All photographs in this post are captioned with the original titles given by photographers on Flickr.

Also note: In this post, I am only going to consider the British Received Pronunciation and the General American accents. (This is a blog post, not thesis paper, right? If anyone wants to explore other accents and/or languages in the comments, that is always welcome!) For the record, I am an American with a not-reliably General American accent.

It’s all rhotic to me.

Alannah said:

I think I have a word for you! How about Arse (or the American version: Ass) I wonder why it’s spelled so different between us…

This is a question which really comes down to how we pronounce, or don’t pronounce, our Rs, and also how we spell our words. First the rhotic/non-rhotic issue: I looked high and low for a good, simple definition of rhotic and non-rhotic to share. And you know what, you guys? Let’s just look at Wikipedia. Because it’s easy. [2]

Rhotic and non-rhotic accents:

A rhotic … speaker pronounces the letter R in hard; a non-rhotic speaker does not pronounce it in hard. That is, rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ in all positions, while non-rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ only if it is followed by a vowel sound in the same phrase or prosodic unit…

artistic-ish a*se 2

artistic-ish a*se 2 by Loving Earth, on Flickr

British English is non-rhotic. American English is rhotic. Because the R in arse is not followed by a vowel, British English speakers pronounce it like “ah-s” (sorry for slaughtering your pronunciation in type on my blog, nice British people! Here’s a more formal pronunciation for you: [ɑ:s]). American English speakers say ass something like “aa-s” (Americans who don’t like my phonetic description are welcomed to kiss my ass entitled to their own opinions just like anyone else. Oh, here’s a pronunciation for you, too: [æs]).

These pronunciations are not really that far apart, and don’t account for the R in arse. Part of the issue is that British has not always been a non-rhotic language:

all English accents were rhotic up until the early MnE period and non-rhoticity was a relatively late development. (Remember, spelling reflects pronunciation in the early MnE period.)

My Ass Is Trying To Escape!

My Ass Is Trying To Escape! by Rude Cactus, on Flickr

Aha! That last bit up there is important: “spelling reflects pronunciation in the early MnE period”. Modern Englisn (MnE) used to have arse pronounced, well, “arse” (sorry, my American is showing, try this instead: “are-s”). It was after the non-rhoticization of English in the Modern English period (for MnE, think: roughly Shakespeare onward), that the pronunciation of arse shifted. And sounded much more like the word ass, which to the British was, and is, a beast of burden, and not a derrière.

The spelling of arse was formalized in British English with the older, rhotic spelling. In the US, our spelling shook out a little differently. The spelling of ass reflects our pronunciation, which is based on the later, non-rhotic British pronunciation.

Someday I will do a fun post on conventional spelling and dictionaries (which were just coming onto the scene around the time all this MnE and arse/ass business was going on), but for now the take home point is this: arse/ass are essentially the same word with different spellings. Ass-the-donkey is an entirely different word, which sounds rather similar (or identical) to arse/ass.

What about those other asses?

As ass means donkey in British English, I wondered what I would find when I looked up the word ass in the OED (this is the Oxford English Dictionary, remember). Here is the helpful definition for the non-donkey usage of ass:

vulgar and dial[lectical]. sp[elling]. and pronunc[iation]. of ARSE.

Oooh, vulgar! [3] Yes, OED, that’s how we dialectically pronounce the word in the common vernacular on this side of the pond. Well spotted!

do these jeans make my ass look big?

do these jeans make my ass look big? by Crystl, on Flickr

Here’s an important question for all of you: Is that donkey/ass joke up there hilarious? [4]

If it’s good enough for Shakespeare…

Donkey Asses

Donkey Asses by joncockley, on Flickr

And here’s another: Just how punny is Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? [5] This is an ass/arse-related question!

Different scholars have different opinions about the exact comedic implications of the character named Nick Bottom who transforms into a donkey-headed beast in this play. The word donkey isn’t that old: the OED puts the first written usage at 1785. People may have started to use the word donkey instead of ass so as not to sound as though they were saying arse. It’s not impossible that there was a bit of a pun going on in Midsummers.

Here’s what the Online Etymological Dictionary has to say:

Indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass can be traced to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass “donkey” by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1594) is the word-play some think it is.

What an ass

What an ass by magnusfranklin, on Flickr

Bottom and Titania

Bottom and Titania by tiny_packages, on Flickr

Super-simplified summary of the evolution of arse and ass:

  1. Once upon a time in British English, the words arse (bum) and ass (donkey) sounded different and meant different things. Neither word was considered indelicate.

  2. The usage of the word arse shifted from technical to déclassé.

  3. In Modern English, the British word arse still means a bottom, but now sounds like a beast of burden. (Hardy-har, Shakespeare!)

  4. At some point in all of this, the British hauled their arses over to the Americas.

  5. In the US, the spelling of the word ass was formalized in a way which makes it a homonym with the synonym for donkey; in British, the spelling of arse was formalized with the older (no longer pronounced) R in the spelling.

  6. Asses in the US, arses in the UK. And that’s the end of it.

More resources for your arse/ass needs

I love the internet! Here, from my fun travels around the web (keeping in mind that the Google already thinks there is something wrong with me), are a couple of fun links to the ass/arse spelling and pronunciation issue:

  • The Language Log has a post about the author Chris Ayres and his fun adventures with the pronunciation of his name in the US: Putting on Ayres.

    As a testament to how thoroughly rhotic my pronunciation is, let me tell you that I had to read the post twice, then read Ayres’s helpful contribution in the comments (he didn’t write the original post himself) before I actually got it! This post delves into the NYT and their no-no words, so it’s good fun.

  • Separated by a common language has a great post on this topic. It starts with a question received by the blogger:

    wondering why the British “put an /r/ in ass”, when, of course, the real question is why Americans have taken the /r/ OUT of arse

    And goes from there. An excellent examination of the issue.

I learned many things about asses and arses at those posts and the others I’ve linked. I hope I have also brought you to a greater understanding of this etymological issue. Thank you, Alannah, for this truly delightful topic! :)

Shall I call them endnotes, just this once?:

1: This post was intended for last week. I was still finishing up the post when the Prop 8 trial decision came out last Wednesday. That took my mood from silly to serious in no time flat, so I decided to shelve this topic and post on the word equality instead. I figured arses would still be interesting this week, and I really needed to work though some more topical issues right then.

2: And because most of my linguistics books were sadly lost long ago. And I couldn’t find a good .edu source with a simple definition. And Wikipedia (at the moment) isn’t wrong on this, okay? Okay.

3: OED again:

vulgar, a

2. In common or general use; common, customary, or ordinary, as a matter of use or practice.

Arse is, by the by, “Obs. in polite use.” I’ll keep that in mind.

4: The answer is: Yes. Yes it is.

5: Found this lesson plan from PBS: The “Punny” Language of Shakespeare. Now, the lesson plan warns teachers:

You will have to set perimeters as to language (even though Shakespeare could be rather “bawdy” and vulgar), the students should not write vulgarities, especially in their own up-to-date version.

Right! Because that will be easy to do when interpreting Shakespeare’s puns into modern slang! Best of luck, middle school English teachers. You know I love you!


  1. Haha oh my god Casey- this was my favorite Word Wednesday post so far! You made me laugh so hard, my arse and I fell off the chair :)
    “Asses in the US, arses in the UK. And that’s the end of it.”
    This was good to know before I went to the UK- you saved me from humiliation my friend! ;)

  2. Wow, I feel so smart about asses now!

  3. Lua, haha! So glad I could help! I think this may have been my favorite so far as well. I giggled a bit writing it up. (About going to the UK – if you haven’t already, you could read the second post in the “More resources…” list up there. The one at “separated by a common language”. Here. It has a few more naughty words you may run into!)

    Em, you are such a smart– well, you know.

  4. That was BRILLIANT – such a good post, very informative. So much I didn’t know, like the Rhotic and Non-Rhotic pronunciations! I knew English pronounciation here did change but I didn’t realise it was around the time of Shakespeare, oh wow to go back and hear English spoken would be so awesome.
    (My boy is rather old…and he was in England before it was called England, so he’s got the kind of English accent that most people can’t place but he’s adapted well and speaks slang and all that lol.
    Wow so glad I suggested arse/ass (the Irish sometimes pronounce Arse with the R in it…it’s most amusing)

  5. Oh and loved the donkey/ass joke.

    Lua, we also call arse = bum
    As in “does my bum look big in this?”

  6. Haha thanks for the link Casey- I feel more educated already! :)

  7. -“welcomed to kiss my ass” or Arse, as you so eloquently explained.

    Very smart and witty Casey Lybrand.

    Nick Bottom as an assheaded beast-wait, I’m confused, did Shakespeare mean for him to be a donkey or really have a two round humps as a head?

    Both are funny images, but I just never thought about it that deeply. Until now. I’m going to have that image in my head from now on when I read the Bard.

  8. Alannah! Oh, hi! Thought it might be a while before you dropped by, because of your less-internet-time plan! So happy to see you. :) Thank you so much! I’m really glad you enjoyed the post.

    Your boy! Can’t wait! Love old accents, love unplaceable accents, love old characters who *get* modern usage. So very awesome.

    I’ve run across a fair bit on old pronunciations. Give me a few days, and I’ll send you some links, if you like.

    Oh! Yes! The donkey-ass joke is hilarious! (No, really: I laughed out loud when I saw it on Flickr, and had to share.)

    I am also so very glad you suggested this topic! I knew it would be fun, but I didn’t realize how much. I could have written a whole lot more! ;)

    Lua: Oh, yeah. Between my links to naughty words and Alannah’s natural expertise, you’re going to be well “educated” before you ever arrive at your MA program!

    Hi, RD Carter! Welcome! And thank you so much. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sorry about the Shakespeare confusion, though. Lemme try again:

    It’s less that Bottom is intended to have a posterior for a head (that donkey-headed photo up there is a pretty true-to-the-Bard depiction of the character), and more that Shakespeare may have been trying to elicit a Beavis-and-Butthead-style *”Heh heh. He said ‘arse’.”* reaction from his audience. (For the British, “arse” sounds a lot like “ass”, remember.)

    The donkey-head humor got big laughs. Because donkeys are just that funny? Maybe. Or maybe it was a pun that his audience *got*. And we are talking about a playwright who loved his puns. The parts of the play with Bottom and Peter Quince’s players are filled with bawdy verbal humor. The ass/arse pun would have been consistent. Shakespeare’s comedies can and do bring it low-brow.

    Should also mention that the bit about Nick Bottom and the ass/arse pun is not uncontroversial. Not all Shakespeare scholars agree. In fact, I *think* most would say that no, there’s no pun there. I wonder, though. And there is some scholarly work out there which draws the connection. I tend to suspect old Will knew that he was making a pun and did it on purpose.

    I hope I haven’t ruined Midsummers for you by suggesting too literal an ass/arse interpretation! I think it would be fun to read or watch and think this: if you think you are seeing a naughty euphemism in a word or phrase, it’s probably because it’s there!

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