Rhotacism: Wikis


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Sound change and alternation
Fortition (strengthening)

Rhotacism may refer to several phenomena related to the usage of the consonant r (whether as an alveolar tap, alveolar trill, or the rarer uvular trill).

  • the excessive or idiosyncratic use of the r;
  • conversely, the inability to or difficulty in pronouncing r.
  • the conversion of another consonant, e.g., intervocalic Old Latin s, into Classical Latin r.

The term comes from the Greek letter rho, denoting "r".



In medicine, rhotacism is the inability or difficulty in pronouncing the sound "r". The Looney Tunes character Elmer Fudd (originally voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan and later by Mel Blanc) is notorious for his exaggerated rhotacistic speech ("Be vewwy quiet… I'm hunting wabbits"). A more recent cartoon character would be Homestar Runner, who talks in much the same way. In popular culture, examples include Jonathan Ross and Sister Wendy Beckett.

Rhotacism is more common among speakers of languages which have a trilled R, such as Swedish, Italian, Polish and Spanish. This sound is usually the last one a child masters. Some people never learn to produce it correctly and substitute other sounds, like a velar or uvular approximant (such as the interviewer Barbara Walters). R may be also realized as a uvular trill—a pronunciation usually known as "French R". It used to be considered prestigious in Poland, but now it is usually considered a speech defect.

Note that many speech pathologists would call this problem derhotacization, as the sounds lose their rhotic quality (rather than becoming more rhotic).


In linguistics, rhotacism can be seen in a conversion of another consonant — for instance /s/, /d/, or /n/ — to the language's rhotic consonant in some environment or other. The most common may be of /s/ to /r/.[1]



The southern Tosk dialect (which is now the dominant literary language) of Albanian changed /n/ to /r/ while, for example, the Gheg dialects did not.[2] Compare:

  • zëri vs zâni ('the voice')
  • gjuri vs gjuni ('the knee')
  • Shqiperi vs Shqypni ('Albania')


In Aramaic, proto-Semitic n is often changed to r:

  • bar "son" as compared to Hebrew ben (from Proto-Semitic *bnu)
  • trên and tartên "two" (masculine and feminine form respectively) as compared to Demotic Arabic tnēn and tintēn (from Proto-Semitic *ṯnaimi and *ṯnataimi). Cf. also Aramic tinyânâ "the second one", without the shift.


In Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic a prevocal /kn/ cluster developed into /kr/ often with nasalization of the following vowel as in cnoc [krɔ̃xk] ('hill').[3]

Germanic languages

All surviving Germanic languages, members of the North and West Germanic families, underwent a change of intervocalic /s/ to /r/, implying a more approximant-like rhotic consonant in early Germanic.[4]


  • was vs were (from Germanic *was vs *wēzun)
  • lose vs forlorn (from Germanic *liusana vs *luzenaz)

Many people wrongly believe that, in Scouse, intervocalic dentals are realised as "r" when the stress pattern is stressed vowel - dental - unstressed vowel (i.e., "got a lot of" becoming "gorra lorra"). Mancunians and people from Yorkshire use this construction much more frequently.

The flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ in a number of English dialects (including most American and Australian ones) is a type of rhotacism.[5]


  • war vs gewesen (from Germanic *was vs *wēzun)

In Central German dialects, esp. Rhine-Franconian and Hessian, d is frequently realized as r in intervocalic position. This change also occurs in Mecklenburg dialects.

  • Borrem (Central Hessian) vs Boden (Standard German)


  • vriezen vs gevroren (from Germanic *friusana vs *fruzenaz)
  • was vs waren (from Germanic *was vs *wēzun)
  • verliezen vs verloren (from Germanic *liusana vs *luzenaz)
  • kiezen vs uitverkoren

It should be noted that the degree of rhotacism differs greatly between the different dialects of Dutch.

Compare also Gothic dags with Old Norse dagr (from Germanic *dagaz)


  • flos (nominative) vs florem (accusative) (Old Latin flosem)
  • genus (nominative) vs generis (genitive) (from *geneses, cf Sanskrit janasas)
  • corroborare vs robustus (verb from *conrobosare)
  • de ire vs iustus (from de iouse)
  • ero vs est (from eso)
  • merīdiēs vs. medius (from *medio-diēs; see dissimilation)
  • caeruleus vs. caelum (dissimilation)

This reflects a highly-regular change in pre-classical Latin. Intervocalic s in the oldest attested Latin documents invariably became r. Intervocalic s in Latin suggests either borrowing, reduction of an earlier ss, or the treatment of d+t into s (videre/visum). Old s was preserved initially (septum), finally, and in consonant clusters.

The English word hono[u]r is derived from French honour, which in turn was derived from Late Latin honor, earlier honos, which became honor by analogy with honoris (genitive), honorem (accusative).


In Neapolitan rhotacism is seen in a shift from the sound of "d" to an "r" sound:

(Italian vs Neapolitan)

  • medesimo vs meresemo
  • diaspora vs riaspro
  • madonna vs maronna

and, to a lesser extent, from the sound of an "l" to an "r" sound:

  • albero vs arvero
  • ultimo vs urdemo


In Old Portuguese, rhotacism occurred from the "l" sound to the "r" sound, as in the words obrigado "obliged" and praça "plaza". In contemporary Brazilian Portuguese, rhotacism of "l" in the syllable coda is characteristic of poorly educated speakers.


Rhotacism in Romanesco consists of a shift from "l" to "r" when it is followed by a consonant. Thus, Latin altus (tall) which in Italian is alto in Romanesco becomes arto. In ancient Romanesco it also happened when "l" was preceded by a consonant, as in the word ingrese (English), but the modern way of speaking has lost this characteristic.

In Romanesco exists another kind of rhotacism: the shortening of the geminated "r". So the words errore, guerra and marrone (error, war, brown) in Romanesco become erore, guera and marone.


Romanian rhotacism consists of a shift from intervocalic "l" to "r" and "n" to "r".

Thus, Latin caelum became Romanian cer and Latin fenestra becomes Romanian fereastră.

Some northern Romanian dialects and Istro-Romanian also further transformed all intervocalic [n] into [ɾ]. This occurred only with words of Latin origin.[6] For example, Latin bonus became Istro-Romanian bur, as compared to standard Daco-Romanian bun.


In Sanskrit, words ending in -s other than -as become -r in sandhi with a voiced consonant:

  • naus (before p/t/k) vs naur bharati
  • agnis (before p/t/k) vs agnir mata

This is not a case of rhotacism proper, since r and s are simply allophones in those positions.

South Slavic languages

(This section relies on the treatment in Greenberg 1999[7])

In the South Slavic languages (Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian) rhotacism consists of the change from a voiced palatal fricative [ʒ] to a dental/alveolar tap or trill [r], usually occurring between two mid-vowels, e.g.:

  • moreš 'you can' from earlier možeši
  • kdor from earlier kъto-že

The beginning of the change is attested in the Freising manuscripts, a written document from the 10th century AD, which shows both the archaism (ise 'which' < *jь-že) and the innovation (tere 'also' < *te-že). It progressed eastward and is still found in individual lexical items in Bulgarian dialects, e.g., dorde 'until' (< *do-že-dĕ). However, the results of the sound change have largely been reversed by lexical replacement in dialects spoken by speakers associated with Orthodoxy, beginning in the fourteenth century. Speakers belonging to Catholic communities have not only preserved more of the lexical items with the change, but have extended grammatical markers in -r- from heterogeneous sources that formally merged with the rhotic forms that arose due to the sound change, e.g., Slovene dialect nocor 'tonight' (< *not'ь-sь-ǫ- + -r-) on the model of večer 'evening' (< *večerъ). The reversal of the change is evident in Orthodox speech, where the -r- formant is systematically removed, e.g., Serbian veče 'evening'.

See also



  • Catford, J.C. (2001), "On Rs, rhotacism and paleophony", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 31 (2): 171–185, doi:10.1017/S0025100301002018  
  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Marc L. (1999), "Multiple Causation in the Spread and Reversal of a Sound Change: Rhotacism in South Slavic", Slovenski jezik/Slovene Linguistics Studies 2: 63–76 http://hdl.handle.net/1808/803  
  • Nandris, O (1963), Phonétique Historique du Roumain, Paris: Klincksiek  

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