It’s Not Just English with the “R” Thing

Montreal

AnnaKucsma / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

I talk about “r” a lot here*. Seriously, if you take a look at this site’s analytics, you’ll find that the Google query that brings the most traffic is simply “r.” The consonant is one of the most important ways by which we distinguish English accents, so this shouldn’t be surprising.

Anyway, I was up in Montreal a few weeks back, where I got a great opportunity to listen to one of North America’s great non-English dialects. One of the things I’d long heard about Montreal French was that, unlike its Parisian cousin, it once featured a trilled [r] (similar to Spanish or Italian). I can’t say I heard a single instance of this on Montreal’s streets though; it seems pretty clear that, as of 2013, the uvular /r/ (i.e. [ʁ], [ʀ], or [χ]) rules the day. /R/, you see, isn’t just a large dialect marker in English; it’s a common marker in numerous Indo-European languages.

Montreal French, like American English, seemed to have undergone a transition after World War II when it comes to rhotics. Here’s a brief summary from Nagy, Moisset, and Sankoff’s On the acquisition of variable phonology in L2:

Before about 1950, the Montréal dialect had tongue-tip [r], r roulé, whereas Québec City and the rest of Eastern Québec had uvular [R], r grasseillé (Vinay 1950). As of the 1950s, Montrealers began to change to [R], such that by 1971, most speakers under 25 had uvular [R], not apical [r].

Just as New Englanders, New Yorkers, and American Southerns began to tack /r/ at the end of words where it was once non-existent, Montrealers began to shift from their traditional, regionally specific [r] to a more “Parisian” variant.

The Montreal French shift rather reminds me of another “r” divide: Puerto Rican Spanish‘s variation between the alveolar and velar /r/. Like /r/ in other languages, this correlates with sociological factors such as age. For instance, Jonathan Carl Holmquist conducted a study based on recordings made in the mid-1990s in which he found that rates of /r/ allophones differed between generations. In the town where his study was focused, speakers over 65 used [x] 90% of the time (the consonant more commonly used in other dialects of Spanish for “José”) Speakers under the age of 39, however, used this marked allophone only 28% of the time. (Again this seems to align roughly with the period after World War II.)

These are but two examples, of course. /R/ divides Brazilian from European Portuguese (along with dialects within those countries themselves), distinguishes various dialects of Latin American Spanish (beyond PR mentioned above), and separates dialects of German, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish. Whether because /r/ is a consonant acquired relatively late in a child’s development (at least in English), or because of larger historical trends (the spread of uvular /r/ across several countries in Western Europe), it’s a salient marker in numerous parts of Europe and the Americas.

So given this site’s intense /r/ focus, it’s worth noting that English is not unique in this regard. It’s part of a larger phenomenon in which /r/ is an particularly unstable consonant, capable of changing radically in a generation. And as my Montreal example showed, you don’t have to travel very hard to find non-English examples.

*(I don’t mean R, the programming language).
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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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17 Responses to It’s Not Just English with the “R” Thing

  1. Nico says:

    I’ve long heard about the trilled [r] in Montreal French as well. Unfortunately I’ve never been to Montreal nor am I fluent in French, but I had suspected that the guttural variants, particularly [ʁ], had become increasingly more common. I occasionally watch French programs from Quebec and don’t recall ever hearing a trilled pronunciation from anything I’ve watched. From more formal registers such as news programs to more casual settings such as comedies and interviews, I only heard [ʁ] and similar variants.

    The Portuguese situation is incredibly complex in both Brazil and Portugal. An initial position or corresponding to ‘rr’, the sound usually varies ʁ-x-χ-h with considerable variation. Although it’s worth noting that I’ve only heard [h] from Brazilian speakers. The flap /ɾ/ allophone is still found between vowels and sometimes in final position.

  2. Tammela says:

    Good points and fun read — thanks!

  3. Melatonin says:

    In Accadian French [r] is still the norm.

  4. Randy says:

    I can attest to the existence of the r roulé in Quebec. I had a Francophone roommate from Quebec (Granby, specifically) who used it.

    My mother comes from rural Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. In the Frisian language, they speak with a rolled r, and my mother also speaks with a rolled r when she speaks Dutch. When she wants to put on a fancypants accent, though, even when speaking otherwise ordinary North American English, she’ll use the uvular r, which she seems to associate with Rotterdam.

    • Greg says:

      She uses a uvular when speaking English?

      • Randy says:

        Yes. She almost always uses the typical alveolar approximant when speaking English, but if she’s trying to sound snooty, she uses the uvular.

      • Greg says:

        That’s interesting. As a native speaker of English, I don’t think I’d hear a uvular R in English as snooty. I think I would just hear it as foreign.

        • Randy says:

          I agree. It didn’t make sense to me for the longest time. At one point, I thought she might have been trying to sound French, who also have a reputation of sorts. But she never learned French in school, so I ruled that out.

          It only made sense when I learned more about Dutch and her personal history and put the pieces together. She grew up in a rural village of only around 250 people where they speak with a rolled r. Leeuwarden, the capital and largest city of her province, uses the uvular R. Furthermore, when she was a kid, some of her family members lived for a while in Rotterdam, where the uvular is also used. It is common (though by no means universal) for country folk to view city folk as snooty. This view, plus the fact that the two big cities she could relate to the most use the uvular led to her perception of it as snooty.

  5. dw says:

    I disagree with the claim that /r/ is a “particularly unstable” consonant. If you look at the big picture (say, developments in Indo-European since the Proto-Indo-European breakup) it’s probably one of the most stable consonants — certainly if one looks at its role in the phonemic system rather than minor phonetic details. Look at the competition:

    * voiceless stops tend to become voiced in intervocalic position, then become voiced fricatives, then often elided altogether (see e.g. French or Hindi).

    * nasals tend to become nasalized vowels.

    * /h/ tends to become zero.

    * /w/ tends to lose its velar component, ending up as something more like /v/ (e.g. German, Romance).

    While /r/ does sometimes merge with /l/ (e.g. Spanish Catalina <- Catarina), or get dropped as in "non-rhotic" accents of English and some other Germanic languages, it's otherwise pretty persistent — probably because there aren't many other similar sounds with which it can merge.

  6. Melatonin says:

    ”* /h/ tends to become zero.”

    This is true,
    in Brasília (Brazil’s capital)

    all people pronounce amar, beber, sumir without the final [h] (unless the following words begins with a vowel, then the -r is pronounced like a tap)> [a’ma], [be’be], [su’mi].

    Furthermore some people even delete the syllable final -r [h]> porto [‘potu] 🙁
    it’s a new fad

    • Nico says:

      Hehe, this is following a similar pattern typical of Andalusian, Canarian, and Caribbean Spanish. But then again, most consonants in coda position tend to be reduced or disappear completely in those dialects.

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