Guttural R Explained

In linguistics, guttural R (sometimes known as French R) refers to pronunciation of a rhotic consonant as a guttural consonant. These consonants are usually uvular. Speakers of languages with "French R" typically regard the guttural and alveolar to be alternative pronunciations of the same phoneme, despite the articulatory differences. A similar consonant is found in other parts of the world, but in most other places it has little or no cultural association nor interchangeability with rhotics (alveolar trill, alveolar flap, or alveolar approximant).

The guttural rhotic is the usual form of the rhotic consonant in most of what is now France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the southernmost parts of Sweden and Norway, and is frequent in the Netherlands. It also occurs as the normal pronunciation of one of two rhotic phonemes (usually replacing an older alveolar trill) in most of Portugal, as well as Brazil, Puerto Rico, and parts of Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Romance languages


The French language is perhaps the best known example of a language with a guttural rhotic, to the extent that this pronunciation is widely stereotyped. While there are a wide range of realizations – the uvular trill, the uvular fricatives and (the latter also realized as an approximant), the alveolar trill, the alveolar tap, will all be recognized as the phoneme – most of them will be considered dialectal. For example, was once typical of a working class Parisian accent, while is sometimes found in southern France, as well as increasingly less in North America..

Today in northern France, is commonly pronounced as a voiced or voiceless uvular fricative . is also the most common pronunciation in the French media. In much of southern France this guttural R has replaced the traditional alveolar trill which can now only be heard among the oldest persons.

It is not known when the guttural rhotic entered the French language, although it may have become commonplace in the mid or late eighteenth century. Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, written in the seventeenth century, has a professor describe the sound of as an alveolar trill.

Rural Quebec French as well as Quebec French from older generations generally use an alveolar trill, as was traditionally the pronunciation in Western Quebec (including Montreal) and other parts of Canada, and as such this older pronunciation feature must have been retained after the French colonists in Canada were isolated from "Mother France."

French Canadian broadcasters as well as Quebec's urbanites, however, 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 (written ⟨r⟩) and the alveolar trill (written ⟨rr⟩). In other positions, only ⟨r⟩ is written, but it can stand for either sound, depending on the exact position. The distribution of these sounds is mostly the same as other Iberian languages like Spanish, i.e.:

In the 19th century the voiced uvular fricative penetrated the upper classes in the region of Lisbon in Portugal as the realization of the trill. By the late 20th century, it had replaced the alveolar trill in most of the country's urban areas. In the rural regions, the alveolar trill is still dominant, but most of the country's population currently lives in or near the cities. The uvular trill is also heard sometimes.

The Setúbal dialect uses the voiced uvular fricative for all instances of "r" — word start, intervocalic, postconsonantal and syllable ending. This same pronunciation is attested in people with rhotacism and in non-native speakers of French 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, voiceless uvular fricative or a voiceless glottal fricative,.[1] 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 would normally use a flap). The resulting distribution can be described as:

In the three southernmost states, however, the alveolar trill 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 before consonants (e.g. in quarto). Among others, this includes many speakers in the city of São Paulo and some neighbours cities, though alveolar approximant is also common, not only in the city, but the approximant is the dominant articulation in São Paulo state, the most populous state in Brazil. The caipira dialect has the alveolar approximant in the same position.

In areas where ⟨r⟩ at the end of a word would be a voiceless fricative (which is most of Brazil), the tendency in colloquial speech is to pronounce this sound very lightly, or omit it entirely. Some speakers may omit it entirely in infinitives but pronounce it lightly in some other words ending in ⟨r⟩. This tendency also occurs in some African countries; but speakers in Rio often resist the tendency, pronouncing a strong fricative or 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, which is normally voiced to . For example, a speaker whose ⟨rr⟩ sounds like will often pronounce surdo "deaf" as or even, with a very slight epenthetic vowel that mimics the preceding vowel.


In most Spanish-speaking territories and regions, guttural or uvular realizations of are considered a speech defect. Generally the single flap, 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 can't achieve the alveolar articulation. This said, uvular or back variants for are widespread in rural Puerto Rican Spanish and in the variety of Ponce,[2] whereas they are heavily stigmatized in the variety of the capital.[3] To a lesser extent, velar variants of /r/ are found in some rural Cuban (Yatera, Guantánamo Province)[4] and Dominican vernaculars (El Cibao, eastern rural regions of the country)[5]


As in Spanish, standard Italian considers the guttural or uvular /r/ a mistake or defect. But some north areas which have strong Gallic and Germanic influence use this form of /r/ as the main form of the phoneme.


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.

Continental West Germanic

Many Low Franconian and Low Saxon varieties adopted a uvular rhotic. While many of the Upper German varieties maintained an alveolar trill (IPA), many Central German varieties also adopted a uvular rhotic. The development of a uvular rhotic in these regions is not entirely understood, but a common theory is that these languages adopted a uvular rhotic because of French influence, though the reason for uvular rhotic in modern European French is not itself 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 Belgium, the usual rhotic is an alveolar trill, but the uvular rhotic does occur, mostly in the province of Limburg, in the region around 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). 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 sound 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 where it is uvular (called a brei).

Standard German

Most varieties of Standard German are spoken with a uvular rhotic, even though the first standardized pronunciation dictionary by Theodor Siebs prescribed an alveolar pronunciation. The alveolar pronunciation is used in some standard German varieties of South-Eastern and North-Western Germany, Austria, and especially Switzerland. In many varieties, both with a uvular rhotic and with an alveolar one, the rhotic is often vocalized at the ends of syllables. Non-standard varieties employ the alveolar trill more often.


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


Speakers of the traditional English dialect of Northumberland and County Durham used a uvular r known as the "Northumbrian burr".[6] [7] [8] However, this is no longer used by most contemporary speakers, who generally realise as an alveolar approximant,, in common with other varieties spoken in the Anglosphere.[9] [10]

North Germanic

An alveolar rhotic predominates northern Scandinavia. Where it occurs, it affects the succeeding alveolars, turning the clusters and,,, retroflex: . Thus the Norwegian word "norsk" is pronounced by speakers with an alveolar flap. This effect is rare in the speech of those using a uvular ar, though it can occasionally occur, particularly amongst those who have had significant exposure to speakers using an alveolar flap.

Danish and Swedish

The rhotic used in Denmark is a voiced uvular approximant, and the nearby Swedish regions of Skåne, Blekinge, southern Halland and southern Småland use a uvular trill or a uvular fricative.


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.[11] Because retroflex consonants are mutations of and other alveolar or dental consonants, the use of a uvalar rhotic means an absence of most retroflex consonants.

Slavic languages

In Slavic languages, the alveolar trill predominates, with the uvular rhotic generally seen as a defective pronunciation. An exception are the languages of the Sorbian minority in Saxony, eastern Germany, which are typically spoken with a uvular trill rhotic 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.

Semitic languages


In Hebrew, the classical pronunciation associated with the consonant Hebrew: ר was tapped, and was grammatically treated as an ungeminable phoneme of the language. In most dialects of Hebrew among the Jewish diaspora, it remained a tap or a trill . However, in some Ashkenazi dialects as preserved among Jews in northern Europe it was a uvular rhotic, either a trill or a fricative . 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 as a guttural, 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 articulations of /r/ depending on circumstances.

Yiddish influence

Though an Ashkenazi Jew in Czarist Russia, the Zionist Eliezer ben Yehuda based his Standard Hebrew on the Sephardic dialect originally spoken in Spain, and therefore recommended an alveolar . But as the first waves of Jews to resettle in the Holy Land were northern Ashkenazi, they came to speak Standard Hebrew with their preferred uvular articulation as found in Yiddish or modern standard German, and it gradually became the most prestigious pronunciation for the language. The modern State of Israel has Jews whose ancestors came from all over the world, but nearly all of them today speak Hebrew with a uvular because of its modern prestige and historical elite status.

Israeli Hebrew

Many Jewish immigrants to Israel spoke a variety of Arabic in their countries of origin and pronounced the Hebrew rhotic as an alveolar tap, similar to Arabic Arabic: [[ر]] . Gradually, many of them began pronouncing their Hebrew rhotic as a voiced uvular fricative, somewhat similar to some Arabic dialects for pronouncing Arabic: [[غ]] . However, in modern Sephardic and Mizrahi poetry and folk music, as well as in the standard (or "standardized") Hebrew used in the Israeli media, an alveolar rhotic continues to be used.


While most dialects of Arabic retain the classical pronunciation of Arabic: [[ر]] as an alveolar trill or tap, a few dialects use a uvular trill . These include:

Though the guttural rhotic is rare in Arabic, uvular/velar sounds are common in this language. The uvular/velar fricative ~ is a common standard pronunciation of the letter Arabic: [[غ]] , and the uvular plosive is a standard pronunciation of the letter Arabic: [[ق]].

Other language families

Malay dialects

Although standard Malay uses an alveolar trill or alveolar flap, and the guttural r was rarely used in Austronesian languages, there are many dialects in Peninsular Malaysia that use the Voiced uvular fricative - similar to the French r. These include:

The guttural r in Malay usually written as "gh". There are also, though rare, some words in Standard Malay which use "gh" that sound as voiced velar fricative, e.g loghat (Dialect); ghaib (invisible, mystical). Most of these words are usually Arabic loanwords that include letter Arabic: [[غ]].

See also


External links

Notes and References

  1. Mateus, Maria Helena & d'Andrade, Ernesto (2000) The Phonology of Portuguese ISBN 0-19-823581-X (Excerpt from Google Books)
  2. Navarro-Tomás, T. (1948). El español en Puerto Rico. Contribución a la geografía lingüística latinoamericana. Río Piedras: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, p.91-93.
  3. López-Morales, H. (1983). Estratificación social del español de San Juan de Puerto Rico. México: UNAM.
  4. López-Morales, H. 1992. El español del Caribe. Madrid: MAPFRE, p. 61.
  5. Jiménez-Sabater, M.1984. Más datos sobre el español de la República Dominicana. Santo Domingo: Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, p.87.
  6. Wells, J.C. 1982. Accents of English 2: The British Isles. Cambridge University Press. Page 368
  7. Survey of English Dialects, Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland
  8. Survey of English Dialects, Ebchester, County Durham
  9. Millennium Memory Bank, Alnwick, Northumberland
  10. Millennium Memory Bank, Butterknowle, County Durham
  11. Chambers, J.K. and Trudgill, P. (1998): Dialectology. Cambridge University Press, p. 173f.