British pronounciation of the letter R

I notice that, unlike Americans, Brits sometimes pronounce the letter R with a rolling tongue (i.e. similar to what I would call a “proper R”, as known from nearly every language on earth, except for American english, french and north german).
However, I don’t remember being taught in school the rules of when to pronounce R’s rolling and when soft.
Any Brits willing to enlighten me?

I think the rules are more geographical than linguistic. My dad, a Glaswegian, rrrrrroles his rrrrrrs loads whereas I, being a Londoner, don’t.

I was gonna leave this to an actual Brit to answer, but I think enough time has elapsed.

First thing is, it depends on what type of Brit. Most Scots always roll their R’s, because that’s the way the R is pronounced in Scottish dialects. It’s a soft roll, though. I think you’re probably asking about the really pronounced roll, which is (in my experience) a snobby English affectation that your ordinary down-to-earth English person wouldn’t be caught dead using.

Ask Duke, though, he went to Oxford.

It varies, as has been noted, from dialect to dialect. Scottish dialects tend to use either a tapped or a trilled “r” (where the tongue, in producing the sound, makes brief contact with the alveolar ridge - repeatedly so, in the trilled or rolled “r”). In (what’s generally considered") the Standard English dialect, it’s an approximant “r”, where the tongue merely makes a half-hearted lunge in the direction of the alveolar ridge.

Also, Standard English is non-rhotic (the written letter “r” isn’t sounded unless it’s followed by a vowel), whereas most northern and western US accents (outside New England) are rhotic. But there’s no rule saying “use a tapped “r” in one place, and an approximant “r” in another”, if that’s what the OP’s after - it just varies by dialect.

Actually I bet the majority of languages on earth don’t have “the proper R” either. Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian just to name a few.

Here’s a nice distribution map of rhotic vs non-rhotic. As others have said, however, rhotic is variable even within its range: Scots trill the R, but in southern rural English the R, though strongly pronounced, isn’t trilled.

It is absurd to talk of a proper R. Yes, that particular sound that is rendered as an R in most (not all) US dialects and some (a few) British dialects is rather rare. I believe Chech has it and doubtless it is found elsewhere. But that sound has to be denoted in some way and R is it. BTW, I believe the TH sound is also relatively rare in the world. Does that make the English pronunciation “improper”. (The spelling is another matter; if we use th for the first sound of “thin”, we ought to spell the initial sound of “this” with dh.)

I’m British and I don’t roll my Rs, but that may be because I can’t.

Are you sure about japanese? I hear “proper R’s” quite a lot in that language. I’ve even heard that some Chinese dialects have it. And most certainly every european language (except for standard french and northern german) has it.
But still, sorry if I overgeneralised.

Indeed, I’ve only heard of greek, spanish and old german having it.

Slightly off topic, but I love this stuff. There are two names and pronounciations for the digraph “th”:

First, “th” as in “thin”, this sound is known as thorn, from the corresponding rune, orthographically rendered as capital letter Þ, lower-case letter þ, and represented in HTML/SGML by þ.

Secondly, “th” as in “the”, a sound known confusingly in English as eth, confusing because it rhymes with “feather”; the original spelling, “ðæt”, is more descriptive. Rendered as lower-case ð, upper-case Ð, HTML/SGML ð.

(As an interesting aside, the Old English word “ye”, as in “Ye Old Booke Shoppe”, originates in printers’ use of Y as an adaptation of the thorn rune into the Roman alphabet. Contrary to popular belief, this form of the word “ye” is pronounced “the”.)

The sounds stem from old Germanic phonology. Both sounds remain in Icelandic and its close relative, Faeroese. Icelandic pronouncation and spelling can be described as Old Norse frozen in time (though technically it is derived from Old Icelandic).

The thorn/eth sounds were lost the in other North Germanic languages (Norwegian, Danish and Swedish), and to my knowledge from the other West Germanic languages, except English, into which they were passed by the Anglos and the Saxons.

The letters soon disappeared from English orthography, apparently as an effect of the Norman Conquest of 1066, which led to French taking over as the language among the elite.

Castilian Spanish has the thorn sound in the shape of the letter “c”, and Greek has both thorn and eth, as Theta and Delta, respectively.

(If the characters in this missive are not rendered correctly on the board, I shall be very mad indeed.)

I’m English and from Manchester, Salford to be precise. I pronounce my Rs ‘aaah’ like you say when you go and see the doctor and he asks you to say ‘aaah’ while he to looks down your thought.

Though if I was to say “Ram it pie ed”. The R for Ram would probably have a slight roll.

To clear up some terminology:

What you people call a “rolling R” is known as an apical pronunciation, defined by OED as “articulated principally with the tip of the tongue”.

The thick R so typical of American and Irish is postalveolar, also called a retroflex pronunciation, with the tongue behind the alveolar ridge. (Other phonemes can be retroflex, as well: A typical example is Indian languages, where the phonemes “t”, “d”, “n” and “l” are often retroflex; speakers tend to copy this retroflexion when speaking English; think Apu in the Simpsons and you get the idea.)

The throaty R of French, German, Portugese, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Italy, Netherlands etc. is uvular (“the back of the tongue close to or touching the uvula”).

As a curious fact, the French R was originally apical, and the uvular R seems to have gained popularity in 17th-century French cities and spread northwards through Germany and Scandinavia. It’s still spreading here in Norway.

I know very little about British dialects, so I’m curious:

In the film Withnail & I, there is a character named Danny ("‘Head hunter’ to his friends. ‘Head hunter’ to everybody") who speaks with fairly uvular Rs (sound clip, another sound clip). Originally I figured the character was supposed to have a speech defect, until I heard another Brit speak in the same way. Is this what’s called “Estuary English”?

Welsh also has both the TH sounds.

This is what I was going to ask about. I regularly listen to BBC World Service, and I regularly hear presenters with what sounds like a “baby R,” e.g. “Weginald made a cwisp dive into the wivah.” Seems like an odd deviation from “weceived pwonunciation” to me, but what do I know? :wink:

I’m usually okay at picking accents but I seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the difference between North and South London. However, I’m pretty sure Danny’s accent is an olde, sub-species of Sarf London English - less and less heard these day. It’s definitely not ‘Estuary English’ – try former Prime Minister John Major for ‘(Thames) Estuary English’, he seems to have developed that accent on his journey from Brixton (sarf London) to City Merchant Banker to leader of the ‘poshe’ Tory Party.

There is a peculiarly affected “r” sound that’s made with the top teeth low down behind the bottom lip - the usual Brit sound IME is that which is made with the top teeth just touching the bottom lip, although the rolled “r” isn’t that unusual if you’re trying to emphasise it. It’s only lightly rolled, though, nowhere near as much as the Scottish pronunciation.

I must point out that you only find it in southern Sweden, and it’s not spreading to other areas, like in Norway.

However, there is one trend in Skåne (Scania for the rest of you), that I personally find rather horrible, to rrrealy rrrole the uvular rrrrrs. It sounds awful to me. I haven’t noticed it until quite resently but nowadays you can hear it often in the radio.

So you say something like “Awound the wugged wocks the wagged wascal wan”:stuck_out_tongue:

I think this is an unfortunate combination of very slight speech defect and accent, the sort of thing that would go practically unnoticed if the person had just about any other accent. It’s suprisingly common among Estuary English speakers though.

Listen to Jonathan Wo… I mean, Ross.