Guttural R Explained

In linguistics, guttural R (throaty R or French R) refers to pronunciation of a rhotic consonant as a guttural consonant. These consonants are usually uvular, but can also be realized as a velar, pharyngeal, or glottal rhotic. Speakers of some languages regard the alveolar and the guttural to be alternative pronunciations of the same phoneme, despite the articulatory differences.

The guttural rhotic is the usual form of the rhotic consonant in most of what is now France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Portugal and the southernmost parts of Sweden and Norway. The pronuncation of a guttural rhotic is also frequent in the Netherlands. The consonant is also found other parts of the world, but in most other places it has little or no cultural association nor interchangeability with the more common alveolar, or the uncommon retroflex .

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 –, (both the fricative and the approximant),,, and will all be recognized as "r",–most of them will be considered dialectal. For example, is considered typical of a Parisian accent, while is sometimes found in southern France, as well as increasingly less in North America.

In the standard dialect of Paris, it is pronounced as a trill, while in most of the rest of northern France it is pronounced as a voiced or voiceless uvular fricative . In much of southern France the guttural R has replaced the traditional alveolar /r/ 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 Quebecois as well as Québécois from older generations generally use an alveolar trill, as was traditionally the pronunciation in Western Québec (including Montréal) 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 Province's urbanites, however, try to mimic 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 (which occurred at the end of syllables) and the alveolar trill (which occurred at syllable onset), like in Spanish. However, in the 19th century the voiced uvular fricative penetrated the upper classes in the region of Lisbon in Portugal, and by the late 20th century it had replaced the alveolar trill in most of the country's urban areas. In the rural regions, the 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, it has sometimes become a voiceless velar fricative, voiceless uvular fricative or a voiceless glottal fricative,[1] although [ʀ] and [ʁ] remain dominant in the media and among educated speakers, while [r] remains frequent in the three southernmost states and among older speakers in the city of São Paulo, before another consonant. Some dialects of Brazilian Portuguese now use the guttural "r" rather than the flap at the end of syllables. The caipira dialect has the alveolar approximant in the same position.

Word-final rhotics may be silent when the last syllable is stressed, in colloquial speech (especially in Brazil and some African countries).


In Spanish, guttural or uvular realizations of /r/ are considered a speech defect. Generally the single flap, spelled r as in cara or ir, 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 /r/ ([R], [x] or [X]) are quite spread in Puerto Rican Spanish and, to a lesser extent, in some substandard Cuban and Dominican 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.

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, though spoken in part on the continent and surrounded by guttural rhotic languages, are more closely related to English and unusually 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. 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.


The traditional English dialect of Northumberland and County Durham uses a uvular r known as the "Northumbrian burr". [2]

North Germanic

Danish and Swedish

The pronunciation of an alveolar rhotic predominates in most of Scandinavia, with additional retroflex pronunciations of consonant clusters,,, and in most of Norway and Sweden. However, the rhotic used in Denmark proper is a voiced pharyngeal fricative, and the Swedish region of Skåne a uvular trill for a rhotic. The Swedish as spoken in Skåne is usually considered to be a dialect of Danish, as for historical reasons it is also largely mutually intelligible with the Danish spoken across the strait in Denmark. The origin of the guttural rhotic in Denmark and Skåne is not well understood, as it was alveolar in both regions before Sweden received Skåne.


Most of Norway uses an alveolar flap. In the western and southern part of South-Norway however, the uvular rhotic is spreading. The center of this uvular rhotic spreading is the city of Bergen.

Slavic languages

The languages of the Sorbian minority in Saxony, eastern Germany, are typically spoken with a uvular trill rhotic due to German influence. The same pronunciation is sometimes found in Silesia and other German influenced regions of Poland in a few local dialects but is overall quite rare even in these regions and does not exist in the standard Polish language. Amongst Polish speakers, a uvular rhotic is seen as a defective pronunciation.

Semitic languages


In Hebrew, the classical pronunciation associated with the consonant ר rêš was an alveolar flap, and was grammatically treated as an ungeminable phoneme of the language. In most dialects of Hebrew among the Jewish diaspora, it remained a flap or a trill . However, some Ashkenazi dialects as preserved among Jews in northern Europe carried a uvular rhotic, either as a trill or fricative . This was because many (but not all) native dialects of Yiddish were spoken that way, and their liturgical Hebrew carried the same pronunciation.

An apparently unrelated uvular rhotic is believed to have appeared in Tiberian Hebrew.

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 R. 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 R because of its modern prestige and historical elite status.

Israeli Hebrew

Many Jewish immigrants to Israel spoke Arabic in their countries of origin, and pronounced the Hebrew rhotic as an alveolar trill. Under pressure to integrate, many of them began pronouncing their Hebrew rhotic as a voiced uvular fricative. 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 is sometimes used.


While most dialects of Arabic retain the Classical pronunciation of 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 sounds are common in this language. The uvular fricative is a common standard pronunciation of the letter ghain (along with).


See also

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. Wells, J.C. 1982. Accents of English 2: The British Isles. Cambridge University Press. Page 368