Another error

This morning, I heard a BBC reporter saying on Radio 4’s Today programme that: “Americans are now preparing for another error of divided government.” At first, I thought I understood what the reporter was saying. But then I remembered that some Americans pronounce era in the same way that British speakers pronounce error. The reporter—speaking in an American accent—had, in fact, said: “Americans are now preparing for another era of divided government.”

Another example

This isn’t the first time this pronunciation has confused me. I was nonplussed in 2015 when the boss of Microsoft appeared to say on the Today programme that the launch of Windows 10 is a new “error”. Windows 10 launch is a ‘new era’, says Microsoft boss – BBC News

How different are the pronunciations?

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english lists the following pronunciations for these words

WordUSUK
Era/ˈer.ə/ /ˈɪr.ə//ˈɪə.rə/
Error/ˈer.ɚ//ˈer.ər/

As the table shows, one American pronunciation of era uses the same vowel as in the American and British pronunciations of error. The other American pronunciation uses a different vowel, which is closer to the British vowel in era (though not identical to it).

There is one other small difference in pronunciation. For both American and British speakers, error ends in a residue of an /r/ sound, but era does not contain this sound. The spelling reflects this difference between these words.

2 comments

  1. I’m American. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “error” as an American pronunciation of era. In the US, I hear both the British long-e pronunciation and “err-uh”. See, for instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qo8qWFa-X8I

    I haven’t heard it pronounced as “error” with an “r” added at the end.

    I do acknowledge that the Boston dialect might add the R. Bostonians sometimes add Rs in pronouncing quite a few words that end in a vowel, especially when the next word begins with a vowel. Dialect coach Rebecca Gausnell calls this pronunciation “the intrusive R” on her website:
    https://www.gausnell.com/blog/how-to-do-a-boston-accent#:~:text=Don't%20be%20fooled%20by,R%20is%20inserted%20between%20words.
    She cites as an example: “Kara(r) and I both think that the tuna(r) in stores in America(r) is not the best.”

    At the same time, she also points out that Bostonian English sometimes has a “dropped R”—an R that’s written but not pronounced. “Usually it will be dropped if it’s not followed by a vowel…. The Boston accent is most famous for its R-dropping on the sound /a/ as in START.”

    So in Boston, sometimes they pronounce an R where none is written, and sometimes they drop an R although it’s written. Go fig-yuh.

    1. Sorry, I wasn’t clear enough. In non-rhotic varieties of English, like mine, there is no /r/ at the end of error. So, in my speech, era and error end with the same second vowel, and neither has an /r/ at the end.
      Admittedly, the transcription from the Cambridge dictionary does suggest that a vestige of the /r/ is present, even for British speakers. If it is there, maybe it surfaces by adjusting the quality of the vowel, but only very slightly.
      Listening to the 2 radio interviews I mentioned, I didn’t expect to hear an /r/ at the end, and didn’t hear one. It was the first vowel that made it sound to me like
      Intrusive R: many speakers of British English, including me, have a very marked intrusive R. It drives prescriptivists nuts (and some teachers, too).

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