In common parlance, "guttural R" is the phenomenon whereby a rhotic consonant (an "R-like" sound) is produced in the back of the vocal tract (usually with the uvula) rather than in the front portion thereof and thus as a guttural consonant. Speakers of languages with guttural R typically regard guttural and coronal rhotics to be alternative pronunciations of the same phoneme, despite articulatory differences. Similar consonants are found in other parts of the world, but they often have little to no cultural association or interchangeability with coronal rhotics (such as [r], [ɾ], and [ɹ]) and are (perhaps) not rhotics at all.
The guttural realization of a lone rhotic consonant is typical in most of what is now France, French and Flemish-speaking Belgium, most of Germany, Denmark, the southern parts of Sweden and southwestern parts of Norway; it is also frequent in the Netherlands, and among all French- and some German speakers in Switzerland and also in eastern Austria, including Vienna. German speakers who use the frontal-R mainly live in the Alps or close by.
Outside of central Europe, it also occurs as the normal pronunciation of one of two rhotic phonemes (usually replacing an older alveolar trill) in most of Portugal, various parts of Brazil, among minorities of other Portuguese-speaking regions, and in parts of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
The French rhotic has a wide range of realizations: both the voiced uvular fricative or approximant [ʁ] and the voiceless uvular fricative [χ], the uvular trill [ʀ], the alveolar trill [r], and the alveolar tap [ɾ]. These are all recognized as the phoneme /r/, but the trills and the tap are considered dialectal. [ʀ] was once typical of a working class Parisian accent, and [r] is sometimes found in southern France, as well as (increasingly less) in North America.
Today in northern France, /r/ is commonly pronounced as a voiced uvular fricative [ʁ], and voiceless [χ] after a voiceless consonant by assimilation. [ʁ] is also the most common pronunciation in the French media. In much of southern France, this guttural R has replaced the traditional alveolar trill [r], which can now only be heard among the oldest speakers.
It is not known when the guttural rhotic entered the French language, but it may have become commonplace in the mid or late 18th century. Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, published in 1670, has a professor describe the sound of /r/ as an alveolar trill (Act II, Scene IV).
In Quebec French, speakers from rural areas and older generations traditionally use an alveolar trill, as was the pronunciation that was likely retained after the French colonists in Canada were isolated from France. However, most urban Quebeckers and the French-language broadcast media have adopted the modern guttural rhotic pronunciation of Paris, perhaps as the result of influence by modern French media from France.
Generally speaking, classical choral and operatic French pronunciation requires the use of an alveolar trill when singing, since an alveolar trill is easier to project than any guttural sound, be it a uvular trill or a uvular fricative.
Standard versions of Portuguese have two rhotic phonemes, which contrast only between vowels. In older Portuguese, these were the alveolar flap /ɾ/ (written ⟨r⟩) and the alveolar trill /r/ (written ⟨rr⟩). In other positions, only ⟨r⟩ is written in Modern Portuguese, but it can stand for either sound, depending on the exact position. The distribution of these sounds is mostly the same as in other Iberian languages, i.e.:
- ⟨r⟩ represents a trill when written ⟨rr⟩ between vowels; at the beginning of a word; or following /n/, /l/, /z/, or /ʒ/. Examples: carro, rua, honrar, Israel.
- ⟨r⟩ represents a flap elsewhere, i.e. following a vowel or following any consonant other than /n/, /l/, /z/, or /ʒ/. Examples: caro, quatro, quarto, mar.
In the 19th century, the uvular trill [ʀ] penetrated the upper classes in the region of Lisbon in Portugal as the realization of the alveolar trill. By the 20th century, it had replaced the alveolar trill in most of the country's urban areas and started to give way to the voiced uvular fricative [ʁ]. Many northern dialects, like Transmontano, Portuese (which is heard in parts of Aveiro), Minhoto, and much of Beirão retain the alveolar trill, but other dialects of the inner center of Portugal have a guttural R with an uncertain origin. In the rural regions, the alveolar trill is still present, but because most of the country's population currently lives in or near the cities and owing to the mass media,the guttural [ʀ] is now dominant in Portugal.
A common realization of the word-initial /ʀ/ in the Lisbon accent is a voiced uvular trill fricative [ʀ̝].
The dialect of the fishermen of Setúbal used the voiced uvular fricative [ʁ] for all instances of "r" — word start, intervocalic, postconsonantal and syllable ending. This same pronunciation is attested in people with rhotacism, in a new developing variety of young people in São Tomean Portuguese (Bouchard, 2017), and in non-native speakers of French or German origin.
In Africa, the classical alveolar trill is mostly still dominant, due to separate development from European Portuguese.
In Brazil, the normal pronunciation of ⟨rr⟩ is voiceless, either as a voiceless velar fricative [x], voiceless uvular fricative [χ] or a voiceless glottal fricative [h]. In many dialects, this voiceless sound not only replaces all occurrences of the traditional trill, but is also used for all ⟨r⟩ that is not followed by a vowel (i.e. when at the end of a syllable, which uses a flap in other dialects). The resulting distribution can be described as:
- A flap [ɾ] only for single ⟨r⟩ and only when it occurs either between vowels or between a preceding consonant (other than /n/, /l/, /z/, or /ʒ/) and a following vowel. Examples: caro, quatro.
- A voiceless fricative [x] [χ] or [h] everywhere else: when written ⟨rr⟩; at the beginning of a word; at the end of a word; before a consonant; after /n/, /l/, /z/, or /ʒ/. Examples: carro, rua, honrar, Israel, quarto, mar.
In the three southernmost states, however, the alveolar trill [r] remains frequent, and the distribution of trill and flap is as in Portugal. Some speakers use a guttural fricative instead of a trill, like the majority of Brazilians, but continue to use the flap [ɾ] before consonants (e.g. in quarto) and between vowels (e.g. in caro). Among others, this includes many speakers in the city of São Paulo and some neighboring cities, though an alveolar approximant [ɹ] is also common, not only in the city, but the approximant is the dominant articulation in rural parts of São Paulo state, the most populous state in Brazil. The caipira dialect has the alveolar approximant [ɹ] in the same position.
In areas where ⟨r⟩ at the end of a word would be a voiceless fricative, the tendency in colloquial speech is to pronounce this sound very lightly, or omit it entirely. Some speakers may omit it entirely in verb infinitives (amar "to love", comer "to eat", dormir "to sleep") but pronounce it lightly in some other words ending in ⟨r⟩ (mar "sea", mulher "woman", amor "love"). This tendency also occurs in some African countries; but speakers in Rio often resist the tendency, pronouncing a strong fricative [x] or [χ] at the end of such words.
The voiceless fricative may be partly or fully voiced if it occurs directly before a voiced sound, especially in its weakest form of [h], which is normally voiced to [ɦ]. For example, a speaker whose ⟨rr⟩ sounds like [h] will often pronounce surdo "deaf" as [ˈsuɦdu] or even [ˈsuɦudu], with a very slight epenthetic vowel that mimics the preceding vowel.
In most Spanish-speaking territories and regions, guttural or uvular realizations of /r/ are considered a speech defect. Generally the single flap [ɾ], spelled r as in cara, undergoes no defective pronunciations, but the alveolar trill in rata or perro is one of the last sounds learned by children and uvularization is likely among individuals who fail to achieve the alveolar articulation. This said, back variants for /r/ ([ʀ], [x] or [χ]) are widespread in rural Puerto Rican Spanish and in the variety of Ponce, whereas they are heavily stigmatized in the variety of the capital. To a lesser extent, velar variants of /r/ are found in some rural Cuban (Yatera, Guantánamo Province) and Dominican vernaculars (El Cibao, eastern rural regions of the country) In the Basque-speaking areas of Spain, the uvular articulation has a higher prevalence among bilinguals than among Spanish monolinguals.
Guttural realization of /r/ is mostly considered a speech defect in Italian (cf. rotacismo), but the so-called r moscia which is sometimes uvular is quite common in some northern areas, such as Piedmont, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna.
The uvular trill [ʀ] and the voiced uvular fricative or approximant [ʁ] are common in some Occitan dialects (Provence, Auvergne, Alps, Limousin). The dialects from Languedoc and Gascony also know these realizations, but it is generally considered to be an influence from French and therefore rejected from the standard versions of these dialects.
The Breton language, spoken in Brittany (France), is a Celtic language rather than a Romance language, but is heavily influenced by French. It retains an alveolar trill in some dialects, like in Léon and Morbihan, but most dialects now have the same rhotic as French, [ʁ].
Continental West Germanic
The uvular rhotic is most common in Central German dialects and in Standard German. Many Low Franconian, Low Saxon, and Upper German varieties have also adopted it with others maintaining the alveolar trill ([r]). The development of uvular rhotics in these regions is not entirely understood, but a common theory is that these languages have done so because of French influence, though the reason for uvular rhotics in modern European French itself is not well understood (see above).
The Frisian languages usually retain an alveolar rhotic.
Dutch and Afrikaans
In modern Dutch, quite a few different rhotic sounds are used. In Flanders, the usual rhotic is an alveolar trill, but the uvular rhotic does occur, mostly in the province of Limburg, in Ghent and in Brussels. In the Netherlands, the uvular rhotic is the dominant rhotic in the southern provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg, having become so in the early twentieth century. In the rest of the country, the situation is more complicated. The uvular rhotic is common, but not dominant, in the western agglomeration Randstad, including cities like Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht (the dialect of Amsterdam usually has an alveolar rhotic though, but the uvular is becoming increasingly more common). The uvular rhotic is also used in some major cities outside of the Randstad area, such as Zwolle, Almelo and Leeuwarden. Outside of these uvular rhotic core areas, the alveolar trill is common. People learning Dutch as a foreign language also tend to use the alveolar trill because it contrasts better with the voiceless velar fricative /x/ in Dutch. The Afrikaans language of South Africa also uses an alveolar trill for its rhotic, except in the non-urban rural regions around Cape Town, chiefly in the town of Malmesbury, where it is uvular (called a brei). Some Afrikaans speakers from other areas also brei, either as a result of ancestry from the Malmesbury region or from difficulty pronouncing the alveolar trill.
Although the first standardized pronunciation dictionary by Theodor Siebs prescribed an alveolar pronunciation, most varieties of Standard German are spoken with a uvular rhotic, now usually a fricative or approximant [ʁ], rather than [ʀ]. The alveolar pronunciation [r ~ ɾ] is used in some standard German varieties of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. It remains more common in non-standard varieties in many parts of the language area. Chiefly in Central German, however, even the broadest rural dialects use a uvular R.
Regardless of whether a uvular or an alveolar pronunciation is used, German post-vocalic "r" is typically vocalized to [ɐ̯], [ə̯], or a simple lengthening [ː]. This is most common in the syllable coda, as in non-rhotic English, but often occurs before an underlying schwa, too. Vocalization of "r" is rare only in Alemannic and Swabian German.
The upper/lower distinction also historically influenced the development of upper and lower dialects of Yiddish, the historic vernacular language of Ashkenazi Jews. As these Jews migrated to Eastern Europe (and later America etc.), they brought their particular pronunciations with them.
Insular West Germanic
Historically, English also had an alveolar trill [r] for the letter R, but it was replaced by an alveolar approximant [ɹ].
Speakers of the traditional English dialect of Northumberland and northern County Durham use a uvular rhotic, known as the "Northumbrian Burr". However, it is no longer used by most contemporary speakers, who generally realize /r/ as an alveolar approximant, [ɹʷ], in common with other varieties spoken in the English-speaking world.
Alveolar rhotics predominate in northern Scandinavia. Where they occur, they affect the succeeding alveolars, turning the clusters /rs/ and /rt/, /rd/, /rn/, /rl/ retroflex: [ʂ ʈ ɖ ɳ ɭ]. Thus the Norwegian word "norsk" is pronounced [nɔʂk] by speakers with an alveolar flap. This effect is rare in the speech of those using a uvular R ([nɔʁsk]).
Danish and Swedish
The rhotic used in Denmark is a voiced uvular approximant, and the nearby Swedish ex-Danish regions of Scania, Blekinge, southern Halland as well as a large part of Småland and on the Öland island, use a uvular trill or a uvular fricative.
To some extent in Östergötland and still quite commonly in Västergötland, a mixture of guttural and rolling rhotic consonants is used, with the pronunciation depending on the position in the word, the stress of the syllable and in some varieties depending on whether the consonant is geminated. The pronunciation remains if a word that is pronounced with a particular rhotic consonant is put into a compound word in a position where that realization would not otherwise occur if it were part of the same stem as the preceding sound. However, in Östergötland the pronunciation tends to gravitate more towards [w] and in Västergötland the realization is commonly voiced. Common from the time of Gustav III (Swedish king 1771-1792), who was much inspired by French culture and language, was the use of guttural R in the nobility and in the upper classes of Stockholm. This phenomenon vanished in the 1900s. The last well-known non-Southerner who spoke with a guttural R, and didn't have a speech defect, was Anders Gernandt, a popular equitation commentator on TV.
Most of Norway uses an alveolar flap, but about one third of the inhabitants of Norway are now using the uvular rhotic. In the western and southern part of South Norway, however, the uvular rhotic is still spreading. The origin was the city of Bergen. Because retroflex consonants are mutations of [ɾ] and other alveolar or dental consonants, the use of a uvular rhotic means an absence of most retroflex consonants.
While the use of an alveolar trill or flap is generalized among speakers of Icelandic, a uvular rhotic is a fairly common pronunciation variant in the language, although it is usually frowned upon as defective pronunciation and compared to stammering and other similar speech disorders.
In Slavic languages, the alveolar trill predominates, with the use of guttural rhotics seen as defective pronunciation. An exception are the languages of the Sorbian minority in Saxony, eastern Germany, which are typically spoken with a uvular trill due to German influence. The uvular rhotic may also be found in a small minority in Silesia and other German-influenced regions of Poland and also Slovenia, but is overall quite rare even in these regions. It can also be perceived as an ethnic marker of Jewishness, particularly in Russian where Eastern European Jews often carried the uvular rhotic from their native Yiddish into their pronunciation of Russian.
In Hebrew, the classical pronunciation associated with the consonant ר rêš was tapped [ɾ], and was grammatically treated as an ungeminable phoneme of the language. In most dialects of Hebrew among the Jewish diaspora, it remained a tap [ɾ] or a trill [r]. However, in some Ashkenazi dialects as preserved among Jews in northern Europe it was a uvular rhotic, either a trill [ʀ] or a fricative [ʁ]. This was because many (but not all) native dialects of Yiddish were spoken that way, and their liturgical Hebrew carried the same pronunciation. Some Iraqi Jews also pronounce rêš as a guttural [ʀ], reflecting their dialect of Arabic.
An apparently unrelated uvular rhotic is believed to have appeared in the Tiberian vocalization of Hebrew, where it is believed to have coexisted with additional non-guttural, emphatic articulations of /r/ depending on circumstances.
Though an Ashkenazi Jew in the Russian Empire, the Zionist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda based his Standard Hebrew on Sephardi Hebrew, originally spoken in Spain, and therefore recommended an alveolar [r]. However, just like him, the first waves of Jews to resettle in the Holy Land were Ashkenazi, and Standard Hebrew would come to be spoken with their native pronunciation. Consequently, by now nearly all Israeli Jews pronounce the consonant ר rêš as a unique uvular approximant ʁ, specifically [ʁ̞].:261, which also exists in Yiddish.:262
The alveolar rhotic is still used today in some formal occasions, just as radio news broadcasts, and in the past was widely used in television and singing.
Many Jewish immigrants to Israel spoke a variety of Arabic in their countries of origin and pronounced the Hebrew rhotic as an alveolar tap [ɾ], similar to Arabic ر rāʾ. Gradually, many of them began pronouncing their Hebrew rhotic as a voiced uvular fricative [ʁ], a sound similar or (depending on the Arabic dialect) identical to Arabic غ ġayn. However, in modern Sephardic and Mizrahi poetry and folk music an alveolar rhotic continues to be used.
- The Tigris dialects, a group among the Qǝltu dialects in Iraq, for instance in Mosul
- The Jewish and Christian dialects in Baghdad
- The Jewish dialect in Algiers
- The dialect of Jijel in Algeria
- Some Muslim-urban dialects of Morocco (e.g. in Fes)
The uvular /r/ was attested already in vernacular Arabic of the Abbasid period. Nowadays Christian Arabic of Baghdad exhibits also an alveolar trill in very few lexemes, but primarily used in loanwords from Modern Standard Arabic. Native words with an alveolar trill are rare. Moreover, Mosul-Arabic has commonly the voiced alveolar trill in numbers instead of a uvular fricative (e.g. arbaʕiːn "forty"). Although this guttural rhotic is rare in Arabic, uvular and velar sounds are common in this language. The uvular/velar fricative [ʁ]~[ɣ] is a common standard pronunciation of the letter غ ġayn, and the uvular plosive [q] is a standard pronunciation of the letter qāf ق.
In Amharic the alveolar trill [r] is the usual pronunciation of /r/. But there are also assertions that around Addis Abeba some dialects exhibit a uvular r. Note that this information is not very supported in Semitic Studies. Also in Gafat (extinct since the 1950s) a uvular fricative or trill might have existed.
The majority of assyriologists deem an alveolar trill or tap the most likely pronunciation. However, there are several indications to a velar or uvular fricative [ɣ]~[ʁ] particularly supported by John Huehnergard. The main arguments constitute alternations with the voiceless uvular fricative /ḫ/ (e.g. ruššû/ḫuššû "red"; barmātu "multicolored" (fem. pl.), the spelling ba-aḫ-ma-a-tù is attested). Besides /r/ shows certain phonological parallelisms with /ḫ/ and other gutturals (especially the glottal stop [ʔ]).
Guttural R exist among several Malay dialects. While standard Malay commonly uses coronal r (ɹ,r,ɾ), the guttural fricative (ɣ~ʁ) are more prominently used in many dialects in Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia as well as some parts in Sumatra and East Kalimantan. These dialects include:
- Pahang Malay
- Kedah Malay
- Kelantan-Pattani Malay
- Negeri Sembilan Malay
- Sarawak Malay
- Terengganu Malay
- Perak Malay
- Tamiang Malay
- Pontianak Malay
- Palembang Malay
~ Perak Malay and Kedah Malay are the most notable.
These dialects mainly uses guttural fricative (ɣ~ʁ) on both /r/ and /gh/. Standard Malay includes both coronal r (ɹ,r,ɾ) and voiced guttural fricative /gh/ (ɣ~ʁ) as two different phonemes. To denotes the guttural r in the dialects, letter "r" often replaced by "gh" or "q" in informal writings . Standard Malay words with voiced velar fricative (ɣ), such as loghat (dialect) and ghaib (invisible, mystical) are mostly Arabic loanwords spelled with letter غ.
Other Austronesian languages
Other Austronesian languages with similar features are:
Other language families
Standard Basque uses a trill for /r/ (written as r-, -rr-, -r), but most speakers of the Lapurdian and Low Navarrese dialects use a voiced uvular fricative as in French. In the Southern Basque Country, the uvular articulation is seen as a speech defect, but the prevalence is higher among bilinguals than among Spanish monolinguals. Recently, young speakers of Lapurdian and Low Navarrese are uvularizing the tap (-r-) as well, thus neutralizing both rhotics.
Whereas standard Khmer uses an alveolar trill for /r/, the colloquial Phnom Penh dialect uses a uvular pronunciation for the phoneme, which may be elided and leave behind a residual tonal or register contrast.
Sesotho originally used an alveolar trill /r/, which has shifted to uvular /ʀ/ in modern times.
Rhotic-agnostic guttural consonants written as rhotics
There are languages where certain indigenous guttural consonants came to be written with means used in other languages to represent rhotics, thereby giving the superficial appearance of a guttural R that may have never actually functioned as a true rhotic consonant.
The Inuit languages Greenlandic and Inuktitut either orthographize or transliterate their voiced uvular obstruent as ⟨r⟩. In Greenlandic, this phoneme is [ʁ], while in Inuktitut it is [ɢ]. This spelling was convenient because these languages do not have non-lateral liquid consonants, and guttural realizations of ⟨r⟩ are common in various languages, particularly the colonial languages Danish and French. But the Alaskan Inupiat language writes its [ʁ] phoneme instead as ⟨ġ⟩, reserving ⟨r⟩ for its retroflex [ʐ] phoneme, which Greenlandic and Inuktitut do not have.
- Map based on Trudgill (1974:220)
- Fougeron & Smith (1993:75)
- Molière (1670). Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Imprimerie nationale.
Et l’R, en portant le bout de la langue jusqu’au haut du palais, de sorte qu’étant frôlée par l’air qui sort avec force, elle lui cède, et revient toujours au même endroit, faisant une manière de tremblement : Rra. [And the R, placing the tip of the tongue to the height of the palate so that, when it is grazed by air leaving the mouth with force, it [the tip of the tongue] falls down and always comes back to the same place, making a kind trembling.]
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- Otto Jastrow (2007), Iraq, in: The Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, Vol. 2, p.414-416
- Philippe Marçais (1956), Le Parler Arabe de Djidjelli (Nord Constantinois, Algérie), Paris, 16-17; cf. also Marcel Cohen (1912), Le Parler Arabe des Juifs d’Alger (= Collection linguistique 4), Paris, p.27
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- Farida Abu-Haidar (1991), Christian Arabic of Baghdad (= Semitica Viva 7), Wiesbaden, p.9-10.
- Otto Jastrow (1979), Zur arabischen Mundart von Mosul, in: Zeitschrift für arabische Linguistik, Vol. 2., p.38.
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- John Huehnergard (2013), Akkadian e and Semitic Root Integrity, in: Babel und Bibel 7: Annual of Ancient Near Eastern, Old Testament and Semitic Studies (= Orientalia et Classica 47), p.457 (note 45); see also Edward L. Greenstein (1984), The Phonology of Akkadian Syllable Structure, in: Afroasiatic Linguistics 9/1, p.30.
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