Arts, Culture & Media

The stereotypical Scottish 'R' is disappearing, but it's not necessarily a bad thing

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The Isle of Skye in Scotland

Credit:

Moyan Brenn/Flickr

It looks like the distinctive, almost-rolling "R" may be dissapearing from the Scottish accent.

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Eleanor Lawson is a sociolinguist at the University of Glasgow and Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh and has conducted research on the phenomenon.

In words like "car," "cart," and "first," speakers are no longer using the typical "rhotic r" but pronouncing the word more like a British or Anglican English speaker.  

This is not to say the change is a case of Anglicization, caused by exposure to too much British TV or radio. Lawson thinks "it's a natural sound change. It doesn't just happen in Scottish English. There have been instances of it happening in other varieties of English, in other languages, with other consonants. It's just to do with the fact that consonants, when they're at the beginnings of words, they're articulated in a more precisely timed way. When they're at the end of words there's a tendency for the gestures that make up the consontants to start drifting."

In fact, in Anglican English, this same rhotic "r" began to disappear about 1700. Initially, it was a working-class speech feature that was heavily stigmatized. Today it is acceptable and even expected in Anglican English. 

So where is the Scottish "r" going? Researcher at QMU used sonogram imaging to look at speakers' tongues as they were speaking. They found that the rhotic "R" was not actually completely dissapearing.

"Speakers were producing the R at the articulatary level," explained Lawson. "So they were making the tongue gesture, but what they were doing was they were delaying it so that it was either being masked by a follwoing consonant or the vocal-fold vibration had stopped. So you're not able to hear it as clearly as before. But it's definitely not a case of losing their R — because they're still producing it."

Lawson isn't worried about the "R" dissapearing, and says there is nothing one can or should do about the shift: "Language changes all the time."

Also in this episode, Stefan Fatsis author of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players" talks about the elusive French Scrabble Champion, Nigel Richards who doesn't speak a lick of French.  Follow the World in Words on Facebook or iTunes

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