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.

It’s in our genes because our forefathers rolled their R's in formal speech and song. When I started gathering information for this column, I guessed that the R-rolling gradually ended in the first decade of the 20th century. As it turns out, I was close. But the question still remained: Why?

Never mind that many of our ancestors in other countries rolled their R's as part of their usual pronunciation. Some made decidedly different sounds with their R's than we do. Our English forefathers, and sometimes even our current English cousins might exhort us to have a “veddy good day.” That’s different from telling us to have a “verrrrry good day.”

My theory is that people were doing a lot of public speaking before the days of amplification, and they needed to be heard in the back of the room. One way to do that was to project the voice and enunciate. So, in order for the audience to better hear the words, they stretched the R's in them by rolling or trilling them. It makes sense. Sometimes they simply “tapped” the R with one touch of the tongue, rather than rolling it, and that’s the way most of us treat R's today.

Rolling R's occur in many of the world’s languages, but for far different reasons. Experts refer to the “alveolar flap” or the “alveolar trill.” That’s because you have to place your tongue against what is known as the alveolar ridge behind your top teeth. Then, there’s the “uvular R.” That’s far too technical for this discussion.

Yes, genetics are involved in being able to roll your R's. My Scottish ancestry no doubt influences my ability to do it easily. As we approach Halloween, I have great sympathy for people who can’t say “I vant to drrrrrrink your blood!”

With the advent of recording devices and public-address systems to amplify sounds, the need for rolling R's gradually faded away. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Our niece Cathy Marino, whom I subjected to my bizarre breakfast table experiment, began to sing one of the songs she taught to her kindergarten students when they were learning letters: “Running, racing, ripping, rubber bands. Rip them off the roof. Rip them in the rain.” That’s alliteration at its finest.

Just saying it made my tongue tingle for 10 minutes.

Have a great day and please, drrrrive carefully.

Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the “Our Little Corner” television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or email him at