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The Three ‘R’s

An e-mailer identified only as “Owen” writes:

“I have a question that no one has been able to answer for me – even my rabbi. It is, why is the Israeli resh or ‘r’ pronounced in the uvula or back of the throat? The French and German ‘r’ is pronounced there too, but it is not the same as the resh. Wouldn’t it have been more natural for the resh to reflect the trilled ‘r’ of Arabic speakers throughout the Middle East, as well as the similar ‘r’ of Jewish immigrants to Israel who spoke such languages as Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hungarian? Where does the uvular Israeli ‘r”’ come from?”

Before trying to answer Owen’s question, we might reflect for a moment on what an odd consonant “r” is. There are three fundamental ways of articulating it, each with variations of its own. There is the front or apical “r” produced with the tip of the tongue, either by vibrating it to produce a trill, as in a Scottish brogue, or by a single “tap” of it, as in the Spanish “r.” There is the flat or retroflex American “r,” made by raising the middle of the tongue toward the upper gum or dome of the roof. And there is the velar or fricative “r” that is found, as Owen points out, in languages like French and German, and in which the uvula, the soft palate at the back of the throat, vibrates against the back of the tongue.

And yet, though these three articulations are entirely different and we can easily distinguish between them, we identify them all as “r”-sounds and have no difficulty understanding a non-native speaker of a language who substitutes one for another. If a Frenchman speaking English, for example, were to say that something was “veky big” instead of “very big,” we would not know what he was talking about; yet when he says “very big” with a uvular rather than a retroflex “r,” we grasp his meaning at once. The linguistic explanation for this is that the formant of these different “r”s – that is, their frequency spectrum when measured by the airwaves they produce — is highly similar, causing us to group them together.

For this reason, too, we often find more than one kind of “r” among different dialects or speakers of a single language. British English, for example, has all three kinds, the retroflex “r” being predominant in southern England, the apical “r” being common in the north and in Scotland, and the uvular “r,” sometimes known as “the Northumberland

burr,” existing in a small area of the northeast. Similarly, the French uvular “r,” originally confined to Paris and northern France, has spread in all directions, replacing the apical “r” not only in most of southern France, but in much of Germany, running from the Rhineland all the way to Berlin, and even in Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Norway.

In Yiddish, indeed, this eastward and northward march of the uvular “r” went even further, extending into most of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine — in parts of which the apical “r” continued to hold out in small towns and villages, while the uvular variety conquered the larger towns and cities. (Interestingly, the same urban/rural dichotomy characterized the distribution of these two “r”s in parts of Germany.) Owen is wrong, therefore, to group Eastern European Yiddish with “Polish, Russian, and Hungarian” as an apical-“r” language, since a majority of Yiddish speakers spoke with a back “r” rather than a front one.

This is the reason that the back or uvular “r” came to dominate Israeli Hebrew, as opposed to the apical “r” of Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews. Although the Hebrew of Israel is regularly referred to as having a “Sephardi” pronunciation, this is at best a half-truth. In reality, this speech combines phonetic elements of Sephardic Hebrew with other elements of Ashkenazic Hebrew, the result being a compromise which includes no sound too difficult for most Ashkenazim to pronounce. Wherever such sounds existed in Sephardic Hebrew, it was the pronunciation of Yiddish- and German-speaking Jews that prevailed.

For retroflex-“r”-bound American Jews, who, like most English-speakers, generally find the apical “r” easier to master than the uvular one, this makes Israeli Hebrew a difficult language to pronounce well. Nor will it do, if you know French, to transfer the uvular Parisian “r” to your Hebrew, in which the resh is softer and less raspy than its French counterpart. My own recommendation is to practice gargling — first with some liquid in your mouth and then without. Once you can gargle your “r”s effortlessly in the back of a dry throat, you need only produce a single slight gurgle of the gargle to approximate an Israeli resh. And if you would like something to practice on, try saying over and over, getting all your reshes right,

“Ha-tsratsar ha-ktsartsar barah. rah.ok ve’lo h.azar.” This means, “The short black cricket ran far away and didn’t come back,” and after a few dozen attempts to uvularize it, you may feel like doing what the cricket did.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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