Linguistics: "th"s and "r"s

A question that tripped the synapses last night:

Does anybody know of any languages other than English,
Icelandic and perhaps Castillian Spanish (sort of) that
uses the “th” sound?

And while we’re at it, does anybody use an American “r” sound other than Americans? From all the European languages I’ve heard, all "r"s are either rolled or from the back of the throat, not the weird, I-lack-the-linguistic-term-at-the-moment “r” that Americans use.

Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.

“We can still be friends…just not the kind who talk
to each other.”

Yeah, Greek uses the “th” sound - Im assuming you mean the unvoiced one.

I believe the American “r” is called a “burred” r, but my IPA textbook wasnt really too clear on it. Faroese uses it, too.

German uses the “r” sound. Being the ancestor of English, I wouldn’t imagine otherwise.

German is not the ancestor of English - not modern German, anyway. Theyre third cousins, more like. Not having my dictionary to hand, I cant remember what the exact term is for the ancient language from which both modern German and modern English have descended.

And I believe the OP meant that harsh, curled-tongue “r” found in American, not the glottal “r” used in German. Unless youre talking about a German dialect with which I am unfamiliar.

I’ve studied German, and the German “r” is nothing like the American “r” It’s much closer to the French “r” than anything else. As for the ancenstry of English, if I remember correctly, Old English is Germanic in origin. I am speaking of OE, not Chaucerian Middle English, which was already infused with Latinate vocabulary from that famous historical event of 1066: The Battle of Hastings, and the resulting Norman/French influence.
English is part of the Germanic family,which means more that
they shared a common ancestor rather than “English evloved from German” which is like saying “Human beings evolved
from apes” which is incorrect. The closest living relative (as far as I am aware) is Frisian, spoken in a small part of the Netherlands and a tiny slice of Germany.
Anyhow, I’m always impressed by the diversity of English vocabulary, and that’s partly due to the fact that we have the Romantic and Germanic branches of Indo-European languages running through our language. Hence you have words like “celerity” and “speed,” “present” and “gift” for the same concepts. Isn’t this neat? Usually, the Romantic word is considered higher in diction than the Germanic one.

Anyhow, I’ve digressed.

Duh on Greek! How can I forget with “Theta” and all?

I speak a smattering of Welsh and they have diagraphs for both a voiced “th” (as in their) and an unvoiced “th” (as in with) which are “dd” and “th” respectively. From my knowledge, American English (and perhpaps some Asian language) is the only language that actually has our “r” sound. According to my pedagogy and diction class, people from England tend to roll their r’s. I am sure if this is from a misconception I will be corrected.


I speak a smattering of Welsh and they have diagraphs for both a voiced “th” (as in their) and an unvoiced “th” (as in with) which are “dd” and “th” respectively. From my knowledge, American English (and perhpaps some Asian language) is the only language that actually has our “r” sound. According to my pedagogy and diction class, people from England tend to roll their r’s. I am sure if this is from a misconception I will be corrected.


Hmm…the Celtic languages. That would make sense.
Although, as another sidebar, you gotta love the insanity
of its orthography: e.g. Ciamar a tha thu? (How are you?) in Scottish Gaelic. How do you suppose that’s said?
KIMmer uh HOW. Bizarre.

Anyhow, most English do not roll their "r"s. Definitely not in London Queens English. The Scots roll 'em, though.

There’s an area of The Netherlands called 't Gooi. It is a very rich area, lots of tycoons and media stars living in posh villages, etc. The language spoken there is a very posh-sounding dialect of Normal Dutch, which uses the exact same “r”-pronunciation as American English.

And although Frysian might be the closest language to English (as was stated earlier), the “r” in Frysian is actually rolling, and they don’t have a “th” sound that I know of. Bear in mind that I can only understand Frysian slightly better than your average Brit or American - it is VERY different from Dutch. Afrikaans (spoken in South Africa) is much easier to understand for a Dutchman than Frysian.

Most English don’t roll their r’s, but the extremely pretentious do - a very exaggerated roll along the lines of the Spanish “rr” sound.

The Scots roll is a softer roll, like the Spanish “r” sound. Some Irish have this too, though it’s less noticeable. The “th” sound is also practically non-existent in some dialects of Irish English (you’ll hear “Tursday” for “Thursday”, “tree” for “three” etc).

:rolleyes: Canadians use the hard “r” too, you know. :stuck_out_tongue:

The who?!? :b

I guess I should have asked this yesterday, but I thought the answer would become clear to me as more responses came in.

Which “R” are we discussing here? American English doesn’t have a single monolithic R. “R” may be one of the less defined consonants in English phonetics.

There’s the initial R, and the ‘r-controlled vowel’ R (which is quite burred for AR/OR and may be more rolled for many UR/ER/IR words: the R in ‘hard’ is scarcely the same as either R in ‘Richard’) R is also one of the most common consonants in English consonant blends (examine tougue position in ‘thrilled’ vs. ‘rock’ and ‘hard’

As regards TH - many sanskrit-derived and -influenced have a broader range of 'T/TH" sounds, as with most ‘terminal H’ dipthongs, like BH, VH, etc. I am thinking specifcally of Bengali, though it’s hardly the best exemplar of this phenomenon.

Could someone toss our a few example words, so this poor lost soul can follow along?

hmmm… i never examined to that detail the intracacies
of the “r” sound. well, to tell you the truth, i pretty much mean all of them. i really can’t tell much of a difference between the “r” in “rapid” and the “r” in “are.” it feels as if my tongue’s in the same place, but i dunno.
either way, all those "r"s are much different from any others i’ve heard, and almost every foreigner i talk to, it’s the most distinguishing characteristic of their speech – even if they can produce “th” sounds.

Yes, the subtleties of phonetics drive me crazy too. I tested my examples repeatedly before posting my last quesy, and they seemed distinct. I tried it again when I read your reply, and it seemed much less so. Then again, my accent changes depending on who I spoke to last.

R is one of the focal points of dialectization in American English. I was born in Atlanta, so when I moved to Boston as a teenager, I clearly heard the difference between the Georgia ‘heah’ (as in “Y’all have fun now, heah?”) and the Boston “heah” (as in “I pahked my cah raht heah”). I also found it quite ironic New Englanders added that missing R to words like Sofer (sofa) and idear (idea) – I actually had to show one girl a dictionary to convince her there wasn’t an R in idea! (and she was pretty smart, too)

Personally, I think that ‘nucular’ (nuclear) owes its existence to the terminal ‘r’. Nyuklee -> nyookyool would be a bigger jump without the R clouding matters. (Then again,
I have a humorous theory that some mispronunciations are simply a subconscious rebellion against societal change. I have humorous little skits about The Day Iron be came ‘I-earn’; Aluminum became ‘aluminium’ (in the British Commonwealth); nuclear became ‘nucular’; etc.

KP: I am a native speaker of NA English, and I actually find it easier to pronounce “nuclear” correctly. I find that the “l” and “r” are too close together for comfort in “nookyooler”.

Here’s a link from my vast linguistic resources.

Suo Na, I agree. That’s why I joke anout ‘iron’ and ‘nuclear’. “I run” and “new clear” pose no phonetic difficulties. If anything, as a more-or-less native English speaker myself (it was by far my primary language, but I began to learn several others before I was school age), I too, find “I earn” and nucyular somewhat harder to say.

There’s something beyond strict phonics at work here. My mother, who is not a native English speaker (but studied it from early in her school years) still can’t say ‘Film’ (it comes out ‘Flim’) even though she can easily say ‘fill my tank’ so quickly that the L and M blur.

A more famous example is the “Puerto Rican Jew” (No, not Epstein from “Welcome Back Kotter”) as in - “Jew better not com ‘roun’ here no more” (Actually, this is common to many Hispanics, but I don’t know exactly which ones), which is surprising because Spanish has very similar Y vowel and consonant sounds to English (e.g. Yo = I)

The American r is a retroflex, from what i’ve read. I think chinese languages have an r similar (but not the same).

Also, someone said Greek doesn’t have the voiced th sound (called edh, and in Old English this was represented by the character ð). However, a book on different scripts, shows the modern pronunciation of delta as the edh sound.

When I lived in New Zealand, long ago, I met a few people who spoke a spectacularly uneducated dialect of English. I should mention these were not typical by any means, most Kiwis spoke what sounded to my ears as a very cultured variety of English. The outstanding feature was the shift from “th” to “v” in words like mother and father (“muvver” and “fawver”). I’ve heard snatches of this same pronunciation occasionally on British television, and it’s always been a lower-class character who talked that way.

However, even the educated speakers in New Zealand had no trouble rhyming “Arthur” and “Martha” (“He didn’t know if he was Arthur or Martha” was a common expression. I presume it’s also common in England.) Most Americans have a hard time with that.

Finally, they had a tendency to add an “oi” sound to long "o"s – “I don’t know” sounded like “I doin’t noy”. I think this is more obvious with Australians.

In the interests of fairness I must point out that my sterling diction was occasionally questioned by NZers. Americans seldom bother to pronounce “to” – it comes out more like “tuh” and sounds stupid to those who are careful to enunciate the word. The good news is I was usually mistaken for a Canadian so my poor speaking didn’t reflect badly on the real Americans. ::snicker::