September 30, 2012

Wonder why we've outgrown rolling R's

Can you make a whirring sound with your tongue? Try it now. Did your husband look at you funny when you just did that? Happens at our house all the time. 

On a recent morning, as I was doing some research for this column, I asked Kaye and a visiting niece from West Virginia to do it. No problem. The hummingbirds heading south for the season and any lost helicopter pilots would have been proud of the symphony of whirring sounds that came from our kitchen.

Following that successful exercise, I begged them to humor me and attempt to utter the R-sound while rolling it with the tip of their tongues on the roof of their mouths. They thought I had gone a bit batty, but they complied. That done, I explained my motive.

I’m a fan of our spoken language, past and present. I’ve collected records — some more than 120 years old. I have march music recorded in the last decade of the 19th century, and a few of the songs have spoken introductions. The speakers almost invariably roll or trill their R's. Why? That’s a question I’ve had for many years.

I finally decided to investigate the matter fully, and since you’re into it this far, you should follow it to the end.

By the way, who among you knows what Edison said on his first cylinder recording made in 1877? I quote: “Mary had a little lamb.” Isn’t that exciting? He explained that his machine would aid in the teaching of elocution. He was right.

I discovered that many kids these days can’t roll their R's. I suppose they can’t wiggle their ears together or one at a time either. It’s just something we did back in the day.

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