Sociolinguistic, phonetic and phonological characteristics of /r/. Special
Issue of Etudes & Travaux 4, December 2001, edited by Hans Van de
Velde & Roeland van Hout. ISSN 0777-3692.
2002. HSL/SHL 2)
the seminal work of Lindau (1985), there have been quite a few cross-linguistic
studies of rhotics (e.g. Ladefoged and Maddieson 1996, Barry 1997, Walsh Dickey
1997, Catford 2001) alongside work on rhotics in individual languages. However,
the present volume is the first collection of articles devoted entirely to the
realisation of /r/ in various languages, in this case a number of languages of
volume consists largely of papers based on contributions to the workshop 'r-atics:
Sociolinguistic, phonetic and phonological characteristics of /r/, held at
the University of Nijmegen from 25 to 27 May 2000; only the paper by Sankoff,
Blondeau & Charity was originally presented elsewhere. As the editors
explain in the introductory chapter ‘Patterns of /r/ variation’, the coin 'r-atics
refers both to the ‘chameleonic nature of the rhotics’ and to ‘the fact
that a lot of erroneous views on the characteristics and distribution of
different variants of /r/ are spread among both lay-men and linguists’ (p. 1).
The major aim of this volume is to provide a better insight into the patterns of
variation and change of /r/ in the Western European languages from a variety of
perspectives. Moreover, the editors express the hope that ‘this volume will be
the starting point of an international and multidisciplinary network of
linguists studying the characteristics of the rhotics in the languages of the
world’ (p. 2).
volume contains the following contributions: Wiese, ‘The unity and variation
of (German) /r/’; Foulkes & Docherty, ‘Variation and change in British
English /r/’; Verstraeten & Van de Velde, ‘Socio-geographical variation
of /r/ in standard Dutch’; Demolin, ‘Some phonetic and phonological
observations concerning /r/ in Belgian French’; Torp, ‘Retroflex consonants
and dorsal /r/: mutually excluding innovations? On the diffusion of dorsal /r/
in Scandinavian’; Goeman & Van de Velde, ‘Co-occurrence constraints on
/r/ and /G/ in Dutch dialects’; van
Oostendorp, ‘The phonology of postvocalic /r/ in Brabant Dutch and Limburg
Dutch’; Llamas, ‘The sociolinguistic profiling of (r) in Middlesbrough
English’; Sankoff, Blondeau & Charity, ‘Individual roles in a real-time
change: Montreal (r ->
R) 1947–1995’; Denton, ‘Phonetic insights into the articulation of early
West Germanic /r/’; Docherty & Foulkes, ‘Variability in (r) production
– instrumental perspectives’; van den Heuvel & Cucchiarini, ‘/r/-deletion
in Dutch: rumours or reality?’.
indicated by the editors, the articles are ordered by topic and methodology: the
first five articles are concerned with relatively large language areas (German,
British English, Dutch, Belgian French and Scandinavian respectively), the next
four describe variation between dialects (Dutch) and within relatively small
language areas (Brabant Dutch and Limburg Dutch, Middlesborough English and
Montreal French respectively), and the final four present instrumental and
speech-technological data from various languages and dialects. Given the second
part of the title of the volume, the articles could also have been organised
into sociolinguistic, phonetic and phonological approaches to /r/. It is in this
order that I will discuss the contributions to the volume, some in more detail
the ‘sociolinguistic’ contributions I have included those by Foulkes &
Docherty, Llamas, Sankoff, Blondeau & Charity, and Verstraeten & Van de
Velde, since these are primarily concerned with variation and change in the
realisation of /r/, and the factors conditioning these processes.
& Docherty discuss the rise of labiodental realisations of /r/ in British
English; interestingly, these realisations are not mentioned in the
cross-linguistic studies mentioned above. The authors present findings of a
study of Newcastle and Derby English which suggest that these realisations
originate in southern varieties of English and are adopted most readily by
younger speakers in the lower social classes. Emphasising the increasingly
important role of the media in conditioning language change, Foulkes &
Docherty suggest that the rise of labiodental /r/ is part of a ‘package’ of
changes involving /l/-vocalisation, /t/-glottaling and the labiodental
realisation of /T/ and /D/,
spreading from the urban south of England to the rest of the country.
issue is also taken up by Llamas, who investigates variation in the realisation
of /r/ in Middlesborough English, and relates her findings to a study of the
labiodental realisation of /T/
and /D/ in the same group of speakers.
Llamas finds that the relation between the two changes is more complex than may
have been expected. With regard to /r/, Llamas observes two distinct processes
operating in the speech community: accent levelling, whereby the localised
variant is losing ground, and diffusion, whereby the innovative variant
is gaining ground. However, while labiodental variants of /r/ are used by almost
all of the young subjects, the labiodental realisation of /T/
D/ is adopted by most of the young
adult males but hardly used at all by adolescent males and young females.
Llamas’s findings challenge several widely held assumptions – for example,
that adolescence is the focal point of linguistic variation and change, while
standardisation increases in young adulthood.
Blondeau & Charity challenge another commonly held assumption – that older
speakers do not change their pronunciation. In a real-time study of the
realisation of /r/ in Montreal French, they found that two speakers over the age
of 45 have significantly increased their use of innovative posterior variants of
/r/ over the last 25 years. Together, Llamas’s and Sankoff, Blondeau &
Charity’s contributions provide further evidence of the value of relatively
small-scale studies into the fine details of sociolinguistic stratification and
& Van de Velde’s contribution is one of the first results of a large-scale
study of the sociolinguistic, phonological and phonetic characteristics of /r/
in Dutch, currently conducted at the Universities of Brussels, Nijmegen and
Utrecht. In order to establish the ‘standard’ realisations of /r/ across the
Dutch language area, the authors investigate recordings of nonsense words read
by language teachers. In comparison with previous work on /r/ in Dutch (e.g.
Vieregge & Broeders 1993, van Reenen 1994, Van de Velde & van Hout
1999), the resulting picture is a rather static one, with relatively low intra-
and interspeaker variability and virtually no effect of gender, age or
phonological context on the realisation of /r/. Moreover, the findings seem to
confirm ‘old’ standards of pronunciation, with innovative realisations
reported in the literature (see references above, as well as Collins & Mees
1996 and Plug 2002), such as alveolar and retroflex approximants, conspicuous in
their low frequencies. This raises the issue of how to define the standard
variety of a language in linguistic research (see e.g. Honey 1997).
Unfortunately the authors do not address this issue. If Standard Dutch is
defined as any variety of Dutch without marked regional characteristics,
Verstraeten & Van de Velde’s study may not have been the best way of
finding out what /r/ in Standard Dutch sounds like. Still, their contribution is
a promising point of departure for more extensive investigation.
the ‘phonetic’ contributions I will discuss those by Demolin, Denton, and
Docherty & Foulkes, since these present results of acoustic and instrumental
presents some preliminary results of a study on /r/ in Belgian French. His
contribution is short, but contains some interesting observations. In particular,
Demolin’s finding that one of the variants of /r/ is a creaky quality of the
‘preceding’ vowel – a variant that is not mentioned in any of the
cross-linguistic studies of /r/ mentioned above – should interest anyone
working on the interface between phonetics and phonology.
demonstrates how detailed phonetic investigation can benefit historical
phonology. By combining evidence of sound changes triggered by /r/ from
historical studies and insights into coarticulatory effects of /r/ from recent
phonetic research, Denton presents a plausible case for refining current views
of the realisation of /r/ in early West Germanic.
& Foulkes’s contribution accompanies the article by the same authors
discussed above; here the authors describe the phonetic properties of anterior
approximant variants of /r/ in British English, and argue that the rise of
labiodental realisations of /r/ reflects a change in progress whereby the labial
component of the articulation of /r/ is retained at the cost of the lingual
component. The combination of variationist and detailed phonetic investigation
must be applauded, since much sociolinguistic work on /r/ depends on the
auditory classification of segmental variants alone. It is well known that
variants of /r/, especially when ‘vocalised’ or ‘elided’, can be
extremely difficult to classify reliably. Moreover, in various languages of
Western Europe, /r/ has strong effects on vowel quality, which raises the
question of what counts as a realisation of /r/ and what does not. For example,
in Dutch, vowels preceding /r/ often end in a mid-centralising off-glide, even
when /r/ is ‘deleted’ (Collins & Mees 1996). It is therefore surprising
that studies differentiating between ‘schwa-realisation’ and
‘non-realisation’ of /r/ (e.g. Vieregge & Broeders 1993, Van de Velde
& van Hout 1999, Verstraeten & Van de Velde this volume) pay little or
no attention to the phonetic definition of the categories set up (cf. van den
Heuvel & Cucchiarini this volume, p. 194). In these cases, a closer
consideration of the acoustic and articulatory aspects of the variation may
provide the analyst with more robust classification criteria, and will certainly
make the resulting analysis more transparent to the reader.
the ‘phonological’ contributions I am including here those by Wiese, van
Oostendorp, and van den Heuvel & Cucchiarini, since these are concerned with
the phonological representation of /r/ and phonological processes /r/ can
undergo. I will also consider the contributions by Goeman & Van de Velde and
Torp, since the findings of these articles raise some interesting phonological
addresses the well-known problem that ‘Phonologically, rhotics tend to behave
in similar ways and participate as a class in phonological rules’ while
‘Phonetically, the rhotics form a heterogeneous group’ (Lindau 1985:158). He
argues that the considerable variability in the realisation of /r/, exemplified
here by data from German, can be accounted for if it is assumed that the class
of rhotics is a phonotactic, rather than a segmental class. To be more precise,
he claims that /r/ is a point on the sonority scale. As Wiese points out in a
footnote, this entails that the sonority scale cannot be defined in featural
terms, since the hypothesis is based entirely on the impossibility of coming up
with a universal feature representation of /r/. Unfortunately Wiese does not go
into the questions of what such an ‘abstract’ sonority scale should look
like, and how phonological representations of individual rhotics should be
established under his proposal.
Oostendorp shows that in Tilburg and Maasbracht Dutch, /r/ sometimes patterns
with the sonorant consonants and sometimes with the obstruents. He takes this as
evidence that /r/ has a relatively ‘empty’ phonological representation and
that a constraint operates according to which phonological constituents should
end in a consonant. The second argument, in favour of a FinalC constraint, rests on the assumption that sonorants are not consonants, and it is
therefore somewhat odd that van Oostendorp calls them ‘sonorant consonants’
(p. 117) and at one point considers nasals as a subclass of obstruents (p. 117,
ex. 8). In addition, van Oostendorp’s structural explanation of the patterns
– /r/ behaves as an obstruent when word-final and as a sonorant elsewhere –
surely requires a consideration of all words ending in /r/. However, the data
from Tilburg Dutch compare stem-internal and stem-final /r/; both are
regard to the first argument, van Oostendorp merely speculates on how the
‘placelessness’ of /r/ causes its complex behaviour, and fails to note that
if, as is widely accepted, the primary function of phonological features is to
specify natural classes, membership of several classes should be accounted for
in terms of the presence of several features, rather than the absence of one.
Moreover, if the default place is ‘velar’, how is the correct phonetic
interpretation of /r/ achieved? Unfortunately both van Oostendorp and Wiese fail
to spell out what they consider to be the function of phonological
representations, and, crucially, how much phonetic information they should
questions regarding the status of phonological representations and processes are
raised by van den Heuvel & Cucchiarini’s contribution. The authors present
results of their study of the apparent non-realisation of postvocalic /r/ in
Dutch and its implications for automatic speech recognition. While in earlier
publications (Cucchiarini & van den Heuvel 1995, 1998) the authors have
shown that ‘/r/-deletion’ is more likely to be applied following schwa than
it is to occur following a full vowel, here they set out to determine whether
its application is constrained by the phonological length of the preceding vowel
and its degree of stress. The authors present judgements of the application of
/r/-deletion in a corpus of spontaneous Dutch by an automatic speech recogniser
and by human transcribers which do not suggest any effects of vowel length or
stress on /r/-deletion.
den Heuvel & Cucchiarini’s research (see also Kessens, Wester & Strik
1999) is very interesting in that it demonstrates how descriptive
generalisations can be made over large amounts of unscripted speech material.
Unfortunately, however, the authors suggest by their use of the term ‘/r/-deletion’
and of slant brackets for transcriptions that these generalisations amount to a
phonological analysis, although the fact that no segmental realisation of /r/
can be observed does not entail the deletion of the phoneme /r/ in the
phonological computation (Plug 2002). Interestingly, the authors note that the
human transcribers tend to perceive fewer occurrences of /r/-deletion than the
automatic speech recogniser, and suggest that this may be related to the fact
that for humans, but not for the machine, ‘the way one sound is perceived very
much depends on the identity of the adjacent sounds and the transitions between
the sounds’ (p. 195). This in itself indicates that despite the authors’
implication that /r/-deletion in Dutch is ‘reality’, further research is
necessary in order to accommodate van den Heuvel & Cucchiarini’s findings
in an explicit model of Dutch sound structure.
& Van de Velde test Walsh Dickey’s (1997) hypothesis that a uvular trill
and a uvular fricative or approximant cannot co-occur in the sound system of a
language; according to Walsh Dickey, these are phonetically too similar to
maintain a phonological contrast. Although in the Dutch language area, a uvular
trill is a possible realisation of /r/ and a uvular fricative is a possible
realisation of /G/, Goeman & Van de Velde
find that in their database, varieties of Dutch in which relatively ‘back’
realisations of /r/ are common, realisations of /G/
tend to be relatively ‘front’, and vice versa. It must be noted that
‘back’ realisations of /r/ appear to be on the increase (e.g. van Reenen
1994), especially in The Netherlands. Therefore, it would be interesting for the
authors to repeat their study in a number of years’ time, in order to gain
direct insight into the extent to which a threatening merger prohibits sound
change. It would also be useful to consider the number of minimal pairs such a
merger would affect; if this is relatively small, the pressure to prohibit a
merger may not be as strong as Walsh Dickey and others have suggested.
provides an overview of the realisation of /r/ in the Scandinavian language area,
and makes the intriguing observation that retroflex consonants, many of which
originate historically as /r/-obstruent sequences, and dorsal realisations of
/r/ appear to be mutually exclusive; in Torp’s words, ‘the presence of
retroflexes in a dialect represents some kind of “linguistic vaccine”
against the intrusion of dorsal /r/’ (p. 81). Co-occurrence constraints such
as those discussed by Torp and by Goeman & Van de Velde raise important
theoretical questions: how should such dependencies be represented in the
phonology (cf. Carter forthcoming), in a model of speech perception (cf. Hawkins
& Nguyen forthcoming), or at the level of phonetic implementation (cf.
To sum up,
many of the contributions to this volume contain interesting observations and
raise interesting questions. Although I have been critical of some of the
contributions and was somewhat disappointed not to find an articulatory study of
/r/ in the volume, given the success of the gestural model associated with
Articulatory Phonology in accounting for various sound patterns associated with
the rhotics (Browman & Goldstein 1990, McMahon, Foulkes & Tollfree 1994,
Gick 1999, Gick & Wilson 2001, Plug 2002, Carter forthcoming), I believe the
volume is a useful ‘starting point
of an international and multidisciplinary network of linguists studying the
characteristics of the rhotics in the languages of the world’ (p. 2). As
suggested by some of my criticisms, I applaud the multidisciplinary approach
taken by the organisers of the workshop, and hope that this will further
encourage ‘phonologists’ and ‘sociolinguists’ to pay attention to the
phonetic details of the patterns they refer to, and ‘phoneticians’ to
address the theoretical implications of their findings.
overview of current work on /r/ and a starting point for further research, this
volume is well worth owning. The quality of proof-reading of the volume is not
of a professional standard (e.g. Torp’s phonetic symbols appear somewhat
different from those in other papers; Sankoff, Blondeau & Charity symbolise
an arrow by the sequence ‘->’ in their title, while van Oostendorp uses a
much nicer arrow symbol, e.g. on p. 120; the format of in-text references and
placement of acknowledgements are not consistent across papers;
some contributions contain noticeably more errors, omissions and
inconsistencies than others, but a flawless presentation would
arguably be too much to expect from a volume that is available without charge
from the first editor (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
Plug, Department of Language and Linguistic Science, University of York
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