Via Desbladet, an extremely interesting LINGUIST List discussion of the popular idea that various phonological changes in languages (notably the Castilian ceceo /thetheo/ and the French uvular r) were the result of a royal speech impediment that spread throughout the population. I was rather surprised that this (to me, clearly ludicrous) idea was taken so seriously, but the discussion that followed is full of great details about the history of uvular r (written R in linguistic usage) in French and German, as well as tidbits about Soviet officials imitating Brezhnev’s and Gorbachov’s southern-dialect fricative pronunciation of [g], Indonesian government officials imitating Suharto’s Javanese-influenced pronunciation of the verbal suffix {kan} with schwa instead of [a], and the like. A sample:

It seems quite well-documented that the uvular pronunciation developed first as a stigmatized feature among the Parisian lower class, the apical r being general at that time. This was still the case at the end of the 19th
century where this pronunciation was called “parler gras” ‘to speak fat’ and
the R, “r grasseyé” (the pronunciation [gRa] itself, with low back [a],
examplifying the feature in question)… Anyway, during the Revolution when it was important for the former upper classes to keep a very low profile, and often
to go into hiding, many people started to use the R in an effort to try to
blend with the common people… Later the pronunciation of a
rather weak uvular fricative became general in Paris and also spread to
other urban areas (where it might have been adopted first by local
revolutionaries), but the reinstated royal court and the old aristocracy,
especially the ones who had emigrated to escape the revolution, clung to the
apical r, as did most of the country people. It is only in the 20th century
that R has become standard, but many older people especially in rural areas
still use r.

I had no idea that the uvular R took so long to become standard. The whole piece is well worth your while.


  1. I had understood those sorts of stories to be myths too, although the Suharto one is plausible since Bahasa Indonesia is a semi-artificial second language for most of the Indonesian population. I am also told that the highly divergent Minangkabau Malay dialect has had a disproportionate influence on Bahasa Indonesia because of their relative importance in politics and literature, although I can’t confirm this.
    One thing I do remember from my American dialectology class is the idea that before 1945, dropping syllable-ending /r/’s in English was rapidly becoming the norm across the US because of its association with East Coast money and Holywood stars. Then, when all the farm boys who had served in the war moved into the cities, the trend reversed, and now /r/-dropping dialects only remain in the New York area and New England. Alas, I can’t remember for certain the source of this idea.

  2. We have to make a distinction between select groups imitating leaders (as in the Suharto case, which seems plausible to me too) and entire populations, causing language change (which seems to me mythical). And I’ve heard that about Minangkabau Malay too; anybody have any backup for this?

  3. There’s a lot of chaff documented about Fernando’s (of Fernando and Isabella) Aragonese accent, chiefly his non-dropping of initial f-, which apparently annoyed Isabella no end. Didn’t have any effect on actual speech in either Castile or Aragon that I know of.
    I’ve heard stupider theories, though. Another grad student found the incredibly bizarre notion that f-dropping occurred in the first place because the geological properties of the area meant no fluorine got into the water supply, so people’s teeth dropped out and they couldn’t properly pronounce fs!
    Some journals will publish any damn thing, I’m telling you…

  4. …i wonder how long it will be before
    humans start imitating talking robots…
    it’s only one little step beyond SPELCHECK,
    believe me.

  5. Minangkabau might be making a bigger contribution to Bahasa Indonesia but it cannot be a result of Minangkabau political power. During Suharto’s reign the culture of the Outer Islands (including Sumatra where the Minangkabau are located) was almost totally ignored and suppressed in favour of Suharto’s fantasy of himself as a Javanese king from the middle ages. Suharto’s ministers and generals typically addressed him on their knees.

  6. Dorothea,
    I’d always understood “f-dropping” in the shift from Fernando to Hernando (which took firmer root in Latin America than Spain) to have been part of the same process that gave us hijo from the medieval Castilian “fijo,” and hierro from “fierro” (and before that, the Latin “ferrum”).
    Aragonese, whose differences from Castilian were (I hesitate to say “are”) most pronounced along the eastern Pyrennean border with Catalunya, would in any case have had little impact on somebody of Fernando’s status and Castilian family background.

  7. Sumatrans and Malays continue to have a greater cultural affinity than either of them have with Javanese. The fact that they are in separate nations today seems more an accident of the Napoleonic War than anything else.
    According to the Sumatrans we’ve met while staying in the Lake Toba region, the Malay spoken in the Malaysian satellite news broadcasts sounds “posh”. They don’t use the really heavy rolling R.

  8. “We have to make a distinction between select groups imitating leaders (as in the Suharto case, which seems plausible to me too) and entire populations, causing language change (which seems to me mythical).”
    The entire population imitating a select group seems implausible to you?

  9. Yes. We’re talking about traditional societies in which huge chunks of the population lived in rural villages and might not even know the name of the ruler, let alone how he pronounced his c’s or r’s. In modern societies with mass media, new words spread quickly, but I still don’t think conscious imitation is a likely source of phonetic change.

  10. Carlos, you’re quite right about that. The fiddly point at issue when the ludicrous article I mentioned got unearthed is the origin of the phenomenon. (Turns out there were some suggestive bilabial pronunciations even in the early 20th c. — but I digress.)
    The chaff is very likely to be political rather than strictly linguistic. I daresay you’re right that it doesn’t reflect Fernando’s actual pronunciation habits much at all.

  11. One difference between Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia is that European loanwords tend to follow the colonial power. Thus universiti in Malyasia and universitas in Indonesia.

  12. Always struck me as very plausible. I’ve several times read claims that the modern London [sometimes Cockney] accent all over the South East of England is the remnant of lots of people assiduously imitating what was then the prestige southern-English accent in the late middle ages.
    I’ve also heard several claims from Geordies [Newcastle people] that a whole rural district near Newcastle acquired a lisp and an r-to-w shift that lasts to this day because the local lord several centuries back had a speech impediment. Sounds highly credible to me – people will do anything to crawl to those in power, the more so the more power some individuals have.
    What about the soft ‘sh’ sound and slightly-forced vowel emphasis [the sing-song lilt] in modern Austrian German? Any link to several generations of that famous Habsburg genetic problem where the outsized lower jaw couldn’t meet the upper bite? Phd anyone?

  13. Mark: are you interested in buying a bridge?

  14. The officers of one British regiment traditionally pronounce(d) /r/ as /w/.

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