Crispy R.

Dan Nosowitz writes in Atlas Obscura about what may or may not be an actual phenomenon:

In November 2021, linguists from around the world met in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the seventh edition of a conference focusing specifically on the “R” sound. The conference, called ‘R-Atics, included a presentation on the intrusive R used in the Falkland Islands, a reconstruction of what R sounded like in historical Armenian, and a discussion of the R sounds in Shiwiar, an indigenous Ecuadorian language spoken by well under 10,000 people, among other events and talks. Don’t be too surprised if, at a future ‘R-Atics conference, the “crispy R” joins the ranks of esoteric presentations from linguists obsessed with the weirdness and variation of this particular sound.

The crispy R is a phenomenon that some linguists had noticed, but which had gone largely unstudied—until the phrase “crispy R” was bestowed on it by Brian Michael Firkus, better known as Trixie Mattel, the winner of the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and later popularized via TikTok. The sound is easier to point out than it is to either describe or reproduce. Some of the most frequent users of this unusual-sounding R include Kourtney Kardashian, Max Greenfield of New Girl fame, Stassi from Vanderpump Rules, and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. It sounds, to me at least, like a sort of elongated, curled sound, a laconic way of saying R.

Here, just watch this video.

To figure out what’s going on with this linguistic quirk, I pored over spectrograms of a podcast I like, ranking various spoken words on their degree of crispiness. I silently mouthed the word “crispy” over and over during interviews with several linguists who, I have to say, were at least as interested and enthusiastic about the crispy R as Katya (Brian Joseph McCook, Firkus’s frequent collaborator and cohost), who literally screams several times upon hearing the sound.

The linguists were careful to note that any conclusions about the crispy R at this stage are still preliminary. They’ll have to do more listening surveys, more spectrograms, and ideally capture one of these rare natural crispy R speakers and try to get an ultrasound of the way their tongues move inside their mouths. But to understand their explanation, we first need to explain what a weird, distinctive, unusual thing the R sound is.

Go to the link for much more about R’s in general (retroflex and bunched) and the alleged crispy R in particular (“Every crispy R seems to be retroflex, but not every retroflex R sounds audibly crispy”); I myself can’t hear what he’s talking about, so I take it all on faith (and am glad I didn’t try to become a phonetician). All thoughts, as always, welcome. Thanks, Nick!


  1. I came across a post about this somewhere else (LLog, perhaps) and I didn’t get it. I couldn’t identify what was meant by ‘crispiness,’ nor could I tell what the examples had in common. In one of the examples, it just sounds like a regular r with some vocal fry in the preceding vowel, but other examples don’t have that. I think.

  2. You’re right, it was at the Log a month ago, posted by Mark Liberman, who couldn’t hear a clear difference either.

  3. Phonetics aside, I would spell the conference name as ’R-atics or ’r-atics, with a closing quotation mark. Obscura uses an opening quotation mark, and the conference’s website uses both, plus the straight one, in various places. I shall certainly write the Times about it.

  4. (a mental note:
    Crispy R
    The Stink A
    God knows why…)

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    The feature I seem to hear is an onset, but not always the same one (most commonly d but also burr or glottal or guttural).

  6. Great! Looking forward to the sequel: S-emics and -etics. I’ve pre-ordered the T-shirt.

  7. You mean the shirtt celebrating Afro-Asiatic femininity?

  8. U Very Well might thinXo… but Y?

  9. Afro-Asiatic feminine marker T fascinates me, as such, by its age and its capability to crawl from one word to another.

  10. Zzzz …

  11. И…?

  12. The difference between “crisp” and “crispy” is vague. As an ADJ>ADJ suffix, “-y” is informal and handwavey… like many drag queens. “Crispy” seems used mainly for food, but mouthfeel can apply to articulatory phonetics as well. CRISPR of course already means something very different making “crisp r” even less likely.

    I note that “crispily” is very rare; the Languagelog post uses “crisply” as the adverb of “crispy”

  13. Is ‘R-Atics meant as a pun on heretics? If so, is there an accent it works for?

    Has anyone noticed the AAVE pronunciationif the letter as ahr-a, with two syllables? I assume it’s widespread AAVE, but I guess it also be regional. It’s something in a stint long ago as a substitute teacher, a role which my kids’ district is now calling “guest educator”!

  14. Oy, sorry. Typing in my phone, I skipped some words in the above comment.

    This line starts out well enough:
    > ideally capture one of these rare natural crispy R speakers and try to get an ultrasound of the way their tongues move inside their mouths.

    But by the end I’m less certain they meant “capture an audio clip of” and not something more troubling.

  15. @mollymooly: I suspect, actually, that nobody would ever have thought to call this “crispy R” had the name “CRISPR” not already been a thing.

  16. Ryan, oh, so “educator” is merely a “teacher” with a stick up the ass? I saw it in contexts as the quotation in wiktionary (Drawing on insights gained in psycho- and sociolinguistics, educational linguistics and linguistic anthropology with regard to language and culture, it is organized around five major questions that concern language educators.) and believed that it designates a wider set of people (including those who develop materials or otherwise are concerned with education).

  17. David Marjanović says

    No, “educator” is a bureaucratic cover term. Probably it also comes in handy when “teacher” has connotations – as it sometimes does in American politics – that you want to avoid.

  18. Yes, “connonations” was my first version and I was going to ask about them. (all I understand is that schooling is often mentioned when race is discussed). But then I looked it up in dictionaries, and they say teacher. I thought it’s a word describing not only teachers (cover term)…
    Anyway, I suppose if you’re a guest, you must be treated to cookies. That’s what we do to guests.
    When I went to my school recently during its anniversary, a young lady was very happy to find that I’m hungry, she was wandering its dark corridors all alone with a tray with cakes, and no one wanted cakes. (I disapprove child labour, but I wanted that cake).

  19. Is ‘R-Atics meant as a pun on heretics?

    Erratics, I think.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    I would say that in a U.S. context “educator” adds more political valence rather subtracting political valence. It also sucks in bureaucrats who do not actually teach students but want, for political and/or social-status reasons, to be grouped with teachers w/o any differentiation. (There are plenty of worthy specialized non-teacher occupations in schools, like “librarian” or “speech therapist” – which may tend to suggest that “educator” is particularly appealing to those whose particular role does not sound obviously worthwhile if described on a standalone basis.)

  21. “It also sucks in bureaucrats who do not actually teach students but want, for political and/or social-status reasons, to be grouped with teachers w/o any differentiation.”

    Yes, that’s how I understood it and it also would suck in me this way. I’m not a bureaucrat, but I often am variously involved in education (and it is an important area of my interests – which is exactly the part i’d want to express, but I’m afraid “educator” does not refer to interests). Nevertheless I rarely teach anything (it happens. I’m a bad teacher though)

  22. The Obscura article confuses phonology with phonetics, and harmonics with formants. In general its quite good, though. It’s a good illustration of how phoneticians work.

    Nosowitz writes,

    Both McAllister and Mielke immediately got to work as soon as I introduced them to the crispy R. They posted about it on social media, shared it with other linguists whose specialties and subspecialties might provide insight, made videos, isolated and analyzed audio clips.

    I’d be curious to get links to those social media discussions.

  23. It’s the “guest” in guest educator that’s ridiculous.

    I’m sure everyone still just calls them subs.

  24. Wiki:

    “Substitute teacher” (usually abbreviated as “sub”) is the most commonly used phrase in the United States, Canada (except Ontario and New Brunswick[1]), India and Ireland, while “supply teacher” is the most commonly used term in Great Britain and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick. The term “cover teacher” is also used in Great Britain. Common synonyms for substitute teacher include “relief teacher” or “casual relief teacher” (used in Australia and New Zealand) and “emergency teacher” (used in some parts of the United States).[2] Other terms, such as “guest teacher”, are also used by some schools or districts. Regional variants in terminology are common, such as the use of the term “teacher teaching on call” (TTOC) in the Canadian province of British Columbia and “occasional” in Ontario.

  25. It’s the “guest” in the guest educator that’s ridiculous‘ – which I take to mean they don’t offer cookies:( Well, I suppose I mentally translate English guest in attributive position as “invited”.

    Regarding educators, M-W:
    1. one skilled in teaching: teacher
    2a a student of the theory and practice of education: educationist sense 2
    2b an administrator in education
    Some other dictionaries don’t even list the meaning two.

  26. David Marjanović says

    “supply teacher”

    Oh! In German, the verb for substituting for a colleague is supplieren (which doesn’t occur elsewhere in the language). There’s no noun because regular teachers from the same school do this.

  27. Suppletive teachers.

  28. Keith Ivey says

    What about “locum teacher”? That seems to exist online to some extent.

  29. I actually don’t identify with the title teacher, although I with educator. I think that’s because in America, the former tends to denote a particular kind of career, which (although it is the largest career in the country) is quite different from the career path I have taken.

    @David Marjanović: I used to know, but have long since forgotten, the term used to denote Gregor Mendel when he worked as a substitute teacher. (He failed the exam to become a regular science teacher several times, for unclear reasons, even though it seems to have been clear to quite a few people, including Mendel’s predecessor as abbot, that Mendel was the smartest guy at the monastery.) In fact, I’m not even sure whether the title was German or Czech.

  30. David Marjanović says

    de.wikipedia says he became a Suppl. Professor in 1949 and glosses it as Aushilfslehrer, which makes sense.

  31. I’m surprised the second century of Mendel’s career is so well documented.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Huh. An interesting typo – I remember meaning to type 1849.

  33. In German, the verb for substituting for a colleague is supplieren
    Only in Austrian German. In German German, you just say vertreten and Vertretungslehrer.

  34. Anne of Green Gables:

    Since then the Avonlea church had enjoyed a variety of religious dissipation in listening to the many and various candidates and “supplies” who came Sunday after Sunday to preach on trial.

  35. Huh, I did not know this usage. OED, sense II.8.b.:

    A person acting as a temporary substitute for another, or filling a temporary vacancy; esp. (originally) a minister or preacher who temporarily takes charge of a church, replaces an incumbent minister, etc.; (now chiefly) a supply teacher. Cf. Compounds C.3.

    1584 Mr. Newman moued whether he might get a standing supply for his place.
    in R. G. Usher, Presbyterian Movement Reign Queen Elizabeth (1905) 36

    1697 To give notice what number of ministers was wanting, and earnestly to solicit for a suitable Supply.
    in W. S. Perry, Historical Collections American Colonial Church: Virginia (1870) vol. I. 10

    1718 I should be glad to hear from you what vacant Churches are in your parts, to the end I may..procure you a supply.
    Bishop Robinson in W. S. Perry, Historical Collections American Colonial Church: Virginia (1870) vol. I. 200

    1892 Some servants..will only stay in situations for short periods… These would make excellent supplies.
    Pall Mall Gazette 8 October 7/2

    1957 ‘Why can’t they get a Supply in?’ ‘Supply teachers need notification.’
    A. Wilson, Bit off Map & Other Stories 152

    2010 I think the longer you are here the more of a reputation you get… I think it’s more as a, you know, a teacher, not just a supply.
    J. McNally in J. McNally & A. Blake, Improving Learning in Professional Context v. 67

  36. David Marjanović says


    Ah, yeah, I’ve encountered that in reading.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Standard term in the UK. My wife spent quite some time as a supply teacher before getting a permanent post.

  38. OED, sense II.8.b.:

    1697, 1718, and 1957 all read to me like mass nouns, and the last one actually sounds like a joke.

  39. That’s because you’re not familiar with the term.

Speak Your Mind