The letter “R” is pronounced in many different ways in modern European languages. Even in English, there are a variety of ways of producing the “R” sound, the most common of which involve curling the tip of the tongue back on itself or bunching up the body of the tongue. Interestingly, the English R (IPA [ɹ]) is actually a rare sound in the world’s languages. More common among the world’s languages are the tapped R (IPA [ɾ]) and the trilled R (IPA [r]), both of which are found in Spanish, for example. In many European languages, however, the rhotic sounds – etymologically, this is just a fancy name for “r-sounds” – are pronounced far to the back of the mouth: this so-called “guttural R” is the rhotic found in (Standard) French and German.
Let’s exchange that word “guttural” for something more precise. What French and German have are uvular rhotics (IPA [ʁ ʀ], depending on the precise articulation). We call these consonants uvular because they are articulated by (near) contact of the back of the tongue with the uvula, the little bit of flesh that hangs down into your throat from the back of your palate. It’s the bit you see when cartoon characters scream.
What is interesting about this uvular rhotic, at least as found in French, German, and their neighbours, is that it seems to be an innovative pronunciation – one that emerged within historical times. These languages originally had the more common rhotics we see in Spanish, Italian, or Scots (IPA [ɾ r]) – let’s call these apical rhotics as a general term, since they’re made with the tip or apex of the tongue.
At some point over the last, say, 2000 years, these apical rhotics became the uvular rhotics we know today. Why, how, and when did this happen? To make the question more manageable, I’m going to be limiting myself to discussing French and German, although do note that the uvular rhotic exists in other European languages, such as Portuguese and Danish.
To unravel the mystery of how apical rhotics became uvular, we need first to understand two facts about rhotics:
There doesn’t seem to be any principled phonetic way to define the class of “rhotics”. In short, the sounds called rhotics seem to have nothing in common among all of them, either acoustically or articulatorily.
Rhotics seem to “wander around the mouth” more easily than most consonants. That is, their phonetic realization can change easily without disturbing the rest of the sound system of the language.
According to one recent paper, these two facts may be related (Chabot 2019). The reason that rhotics seem so particularly subject to change over time and variation within a language is that rhotics are complex segments to produce (Scobbie 2006). They are not only hard for second language learners to acquire – they are also among the last segments acquired by first language learners and the most subject to “clinically significant misarticulations” (Boyce et al. 2016: 173). Given that rhotics are so difficult to produce, it makes sense that they should vary more easily than other consonants.
This variation in the production of rhotics occurs over time through language change. But rhotic production also varies within a language. The English rhotic is a good example: compare the rhotic articulation of Johnny Cash, Billy Connolly, and Jonathan Ross.
What connects the liability of rhotics to change to the difficulty in defining rhotics is this: even when rhotics change their phonetic realization, they do not seem to change their patterning within the sound system.
TECHNICAL ASIDE: For example, a rhotic articulated as an obstruent (e.g. the voiceless uvular fricative [χ]) is still able to function in consonant clusters just as if it were a sonorant: e.g. French frelon ‘hornet’ [fχǝlɔ̃] (Chabot 2019: 7). A decent definition of a rhotic is a phonetically variable but phonologically stable sonorant consonant (Chabot 2019).
This explains why the sounds called rhotics in various languages do not share a place of articulation, a manner of articulation, or even the same voicing. There is simply no combination of phonetic properties that separates rhotics from non-rhotics, because rhotic is a phonological category rather than a phonetic one (more on the difference between phonetics and phonology). Or, if that’s too much jargon, I’ll put it in other words: rhotics are a class because they pattern like one within languages’ sound systems – the key word here being systems – even over time.
Furthermore, the ways in which rhotics change appear to be unidirectional. We have many historical examples where apical trills have become, say, uvular fricatives or trills, including French and German. But we never seem to see the change going in reverse: we have no example of uvular fricatives or trills becoming apical trills (Kostakis 2007). The apical trill appears to be the prototypical rhotic (Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996: 215), and the historical source of all rhotics. Or, put another way, rhotics are the class of segments that are, or descend from, apical trills – and still act like them!
This leads us nicely into a discussion of where in particular the uvular rhotics of German and French came from, and when. Given the propensity of rhotics to change, it is not surprising that such a change occurred. But we still want to know: Where did the change begin? Did it start in one language and spread from there? And when did the change happen?
Broadly speaking, there are three theories:
- The uvular rhotic was an ancient feature of Germanic languages, present even in Old English and Old Norse, which was subsequently lost in most languages.
- The uvular rhotic arose once, spontaneously, in Paris in the 1600 and spread from there due to French cultural prestige.
- The uvular rhotic arose in multiple places independently, both in Paris and somewhere in Germany.
The first theory, that the uvular rhotic has been present in Germanic languages back even perhaps to Proto-Germanic period, somewhere between the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE, arises out of a sound change that occurs in Old English (Runge 1974). This sound change, called Old English Breaking, turns vowels into diphthongs that end in vowels made towards the back of the mouth, but only before certain consonants: [e] becomes [eo], for example. All of the consonants that trigger this change are made towards the back of the mouth, so it makes sense that they should pull the vowel back. But the Old English rhotic causes this change too, which suggests that the Old English rhotic too was produced at the back of the mouth.
More potential evidence comes from the fact that one of the writing systems of Old Norse (the Younger Futhark) had two ways of writing rhotics: <ᚱ>, which represents the rhotic inherited from Proto-Germanic and <ᛦ>, which represented a rhotic that arose from an earlier [z]. Since [z] is coronal, it is reasonable to assume that its descendant was also coronal: something like the apical trill [r]. But this could imply that the other rhotic was not coronal: otherwise why not write them the same? (Runge 1974)
This theory has a few issues, but the biggest of them is that it requires the Germanic languages to have developed uvular rhotics, then changed them to apical rhotics in most languages, then regained them in some, e.g. in Scandinavia. We know that uvular rhotics were not a retained feature in Scandinavia: we can in fact trace their spread from the historical record (see survey in Trudgill 1974: 221). This sequence of events seems improbable, especially given the fact that we have no other record of uvular rhotics becoming apical rhotics anywhere.
The evidence from Old English is suggestive but the actual pattern of Old English Breaking is more complex than what you’d expect given a simple backing of vowels before back consonants (Howell 1991). The argument from the Younger Futhark writing system is even less convincing: writing systems often preserve distinctions lost in speech. In English, for example, most varieties have collapsed the distinction between whine and wine, but the two are still written differently. The fact that Old Norse had two ways of writing rhotics says nothing more about how Old Norse was pronounced than the fact that English has two ways of writing the /w/ sound today.
So we must consider a more recent origin for the uvular rhotic. The two remaining theories place the origin of the uvular rhotic in French and German within more recent history, somewhere between the 14th and 17th centuries. But when exactly? And where?
Let’s consider the second theory: the idea that the uvular rhotic arose precisely once in Europe, specifically in 17th century Paris, and spread across Europe on the strength of French cultural prestige. This has been something like the mainstream theory from the 1880s onwards, although it is no longer uncontested.
It’s almost certain that this prestige-based spreading out of France is what happened for the Scandinavian languages: we have good enough historical records to put dates on the arrival of the uvular R in various parts of Northern Europe. And its spread through Scandinavia shows the hallmarks of sociolinguistic diffusion: the change hops from city to city and then gradually percolates outwards into the surrounding countryside (Chambers and Trudgill 1998).
Scandinavia, of course, was not the only part of Europe to participate in the craze for all things French in the 17th century. Germany too took part in the so-called A-la-mode-Wesen, a period of admiration for French fashions. The second theory holds that this is how the uvular rhotic entered German.
One scholar has tried to pinpoint the exact moment when it happened: 1685, when Grand Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg invited 25 000 Huguenots (French Protestants) to settle in his realm after the revocation in France of the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed toleration to the Huguenots (Basilius 1942). According to this hypothesis, the uvular R of these French refugees was imitated first by Berliners and then, eventually, throughout most of Germany, aided by the prestige of Berliner speech.
Unfortunately for the Huguenot theory, the pattern of the spread of uvular R throughout Germany does not suggest that it spread from Berlin outwards. The dialect survey data shows a west-to-east gradient of use, consistent with influence radiating from France rather than from Berlin (King and Beach 1998: 281). At any rate, Berlin did not assume its place of linguistic prominence within Germany until much later, in the 19th century.
Nevertheless, much of the dialectological data is consistent with spread from France during the height of the French craze – it seems that some prestige borrowing of the uvular rhotic from French into German did happen. Let's review the evidence for this.
The earliest evidence suggesting that there was a uvularization of the French rhotic in Paris in the 17th century is an oblique reference in found in a 17th century document which describes the “‘parler gras’ of a group of fashionable ladies later referred to as ‘Précieuses’ from Montpellier.” (Runge 1974: 11). As Trautmann (1880) notes, grasseyement is mentioned in a dictionary as a “rolling guttural sound” (Bisiada 2009: 87), which, if this refers to our uvular rhotic, would make the Précieuses the first French speakers known to have the uvular variant.
We also have documentation of the spread of this Parisian uvular through Northern Europe: first to parts of the Netherlands, then to Denmark, and finally to parts of Norway and Sweden (Trudgill 1974). Given the timing (during the heyday of French cultural influence in Europe), and the nature of the spread (in the characteristic city-to-city hopping pattern of prestige-driven change), all signs point to spread from Paris. So far, so good for this single-origin hypothesis.
The crucial question is: is this how the uvular rhotic spread to Germany as well? The predominant opinion, going back to late 19th century, has been some version of the single-origin hypothesis: i.e, that the German rhotic uvularized under the influence of French prestige.
But there are some reasons to doubt the single-origin hypothesis. Note that these reasons apply only to German (and closely related Yiddish): spread from Paris remains the most likely source of Scandinavian uvular rhotics. What are these reasons?
- Evidence from mediaeval rhymes
- Anomalies in patterns of diffusion
Evidence from mediaeval rhymes
One piece of evidence for early uvular rhotics in German – that is, earlier than the 17th century – is in the rhyming patterns of certain bits of mediaeval poetry (Penzl 1961). Although the rhymes are not pure or exact rhymes, these “impure” or near rhymes give us some evidence for the phonetic similarity between two segments. For example, Oswald von Wolkenstein (1377–1445) rhymes macht with kárt and Jakob Ayrer (1543–1603) rhymes hart with anbracht. These impure rhymes are hard to explain unless
The mystic Jakob Böhme (b. 1575) also wrote about the pronunciation of the German rhotic in his mystical analysis of the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He described the contemporary German rhotic as “trilled” but that the “tongue tip is at bottom of mouth, not partipating (sic) in the articulation” (Moulton 1952: 86, as cited in Bisiada 2009: 88). This too points towards something like a uvular rhotic in German well before any possible influence from the Parisian rhotic, which we would have no evidence for until a hundred years later.
Anomalies in patterns of diffusion
Another source of evidence for early uvular rhotics in German – or, more precisely, against the single-origin hypothesis, is found in the pattern of diffusion of the uvular rhotic in German dialects. Remember from our discussion of Scandinavia that sociolinguistic diffusion of a prestigious feature tends to hop from city to city first, and only gradually extend out into the countryside around these cities. In Germany, however, this is not the pattern we see for uvular rhotics.
It is true the urban areas usually have uvular [ʀ] and rural areas have either apical [r] or a mixture of the two (King and Beach 1998). But we also see regions in which the opposite patterning occurs: in the Düsseldorf area, for example, we see urban uvular [ʀ] flowing into a transitional zone with both rhotics and then into an area with apical [r], near urban Aachen (Runge 1974). Bavaria too has urban [r] and rural [ʀ], exactly the opposite pattern from what we’d expect if the uvular [ʀ] was a sociolinguistically diffused prestige form. (Kranzmayer 1956).
Altogether, this casts doubt on the single-origin hypothesis, which attributes the presence of the German uvular rhotic exclusively to sociolinguistic diffusion. If this were so, we’d expect different patterns of diffusion than the ones we see, in particular in Bavaria, where the uvular rhotic appears in the rural places where we’d expect an older form to be!
Finally, and most compellingly in my mind, we have the evidence of Yiddish. To understand why, we need to know a bit about the history of Yiddish. Yiddish is a Germanic language closely related to German, albeit with a good deal of influence from Semitic and Slavic languages. Yiddish was traditionally spoken in Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, but Yiddish did not originate in Eastern Europe. Yiddish arrived in Eastern Europe as the result of migration out of Germany “between 1100 and 1650” (King and Beach 1998: 279).
What is curious is this: most varieties spoken in the Eastern Yiddish heartland of Eastern Europe have uvular rhotics (Herzog et al. 1992), and have had them “as far back as we know anything about it” (King and Beach 1998: 284–285). This is striking, given that the surrounding languages of this region, that is, Russian, Polish, etc., all have apical rhotics. The Yiddish uvular rhotic cannot have come from any of them.
The uvular rhotic must therefore have been present in Yiddish (or the Germanic variety ancestral to Yiddish) as it was spoken in Germany, crucially before it arrived in Eastern Europe. Since the migration from Germany to Eastern Europe was more or less complete by 1650, this puts a limit on how late the uvular might have arisen in Germany: it must have been established at least in some communities by 1650 at the latest.
These three arguments together all point to the existence of uvular rhotics in at least some parts of Germany before any possible influence from French. It is possible, however, the prestige-based spread of the French uvular rhotic may have been helped by the fact that these variants existed already in some German communities.
A more abstract reason for favouring a single-origin hypothesis is parsimony: why posit two independent sources of European uvulanr R when one would suffice? For one thing, if you accept the arguments in the previous paragraphs, one does not suffice. But even without this evidence, the argument from parsimony is weak, given what we learned about rhotics in part 1 of this adventure: apical rhotics - which are prototypically trills - change easily because apical trills are articulatorily complex.
Given the difficulty of pronouncing apical trills (a difficulty to which many learners of Spanish can attest!) it is hardly shocking that they might have become uvulars more than once. We can even see in English that our rhotic, once an apical trill or tap, is pronounced otherwise in almost every variety of English. Furthermore, in one such variety (very conservative forms of Northumbrian English), it was replaced by a uvular trill! This so-called “Northumbrian burr”, which “was probably firmly established by the early 1600s” (Rydland 1993: 21), is hard to attribute to French influence. You would have to imagine fashionable French influence that passed by all of the urban centres of Britain to settle exclusively in Northumberland.
So there you have it: according to my investigations, the most likely solution for the mystery of Europe’s guttural “R” is that there were multiple sources: 17th century Paris, one or more places in mediaeval Germany, and apparently in 17th century Northumberland as well. The uvularization of the apical trilled [r] is a change well motivated by the articulatory difficulty of the apical trilled [r]. So when we see the change happen in multiple places in Europe, we need not be overly surprised.
But future researchers might want to ask themselves this question: if this is such a natural change, we would expect to see it outside of Europe. Do we? Are the apical trilled rhotics of the rest of the world's languages equally prone to uvularize? Are apical rhotics the source of any of the uvular trills we see in other languages? Let me know if you have any theories!
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