Written by Dyami Millarson
The r in European languages is one of the most fascinating phonetic topics to me. After years of fascination with the r, I have learned that the historical European r or the eldest r of the Indogermanic languages is the alveolar trill. Over the years, I have been interested in studying European accents that do possess the alveolar trill, particularly those accents of European languages such as German, Dutch, English and French which are nowadays not normally associated with the alveolar trill. In all the accents that I have studied, it became clear to me that there is not just one kind of alveolar trill, but it could be modified in a variety of ways: either voiceless or voiced, either labialised or non-labialised, either palatalised or non-palatalised. The voiced-voiceless nuance has fascinated me the most actually. Most of the aforementioned modifications of the alveolar trill I hear in own Dutch, where I use the alveolar trill apparently with many different flavours, although my general pronunciation is a strong voiced sound.
The focus of today’s article will be English. I have not written much about my English pronunciation, because English is a language that a lot of people speak and that makes it a less exotic topic than talking about the pronunciation of Frisian for instance. However, English pronunciation is an interesting topic nonetheless and I have always been interested in archaic accents of the English language, particularly those that preserved elder pronunciations of the r. My own English accent is distinctly British. However, I use elder Received Pronunciation; I speak classical British. There is no wh/w-merger in my pronunciation, for instance, and my r is pronounced with a tap. To me, it is easy to learn the Japanese or Korean r because I already pronounce this r in English, which sounds somewhat similar to the d. The tap r is particularly difficult because you get only one shot to do it right, which is different from the alveolar trill.
Much people may be tempted to think that the tap r in my English is an influence from my Dutch, but this is not the case. The tap r that I use is a genuine English sound. I have no Scottish accent which would legitimise the general use of the alveolar trill, but that sound is exceedingly rare in my English, although I do sometimes pronounce it as a joke or for extra emphasis; the tap r may also accidentally be a little trilled, but this is barely noticeable and so I consider this almost irrelevant to how I pronounce the r in the English language. My general pronunciation of the tap r in English is voiced, which means I use my focal cords to pronounce the r. However, at the end of words such as near, dear, etc., I may pronounce a voiceless tap r (if I do not skip the sound altogether). I never thought much of it, but I only realised this recently. I did not even hear that I was actually pronouncing an r, because it sounded so soft. However, when I pronounced the word “near” a couple of times, I noticed an r and then I realised that it must be a voiceless sound because it sounded so soft. It was serendipity. I did not expect to discover that I pronounced a voiceless tap r in English, and this made me think more about how interesting the use of the tap r in English is. I have long been aware that the tap r is a stage between the alveolar trill and the more modern pronunciations of the r in English. In fact, my own father often uses a tap r in Dutch, which gives him a “peculiar accent”. However, more than I do in English, he interchanges it with an alveolar trill.