Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The "r" in Dutch

The Dutch language has a number of pronunciations for the "r". Most languages have a single type of "r". However, according to Ladefoged and Maddieson (1996), about one-fifth of the languages that have an "r" have two or more variants. Dutch is one of these languages.

Most linguists assume that the oldest variant in Dutch is the alveolar trill, a sound that is common in many languages. The uvular "r", produced with the back of the tongue against the uvula, dates back to the end of the 1600's. This "r" is often called the French "r" by those who hear it.

Another "r" sound, mostly used by Northern Dutch speakers and especially at the end of a word, is an "r" which sounds like the Dutch "j" or the "y" in the English word "yes". For example, the Dutch word "daar" meaning there is pronounced dai (similar to "die") by these speakers. Some linguists claim, however, that this pronunciation is not standard Dutch.

An "r" sound which is apparently spreading is one similar to the "r" sound in the English words "red" and "rose". Linguists disagree on its place of articulation. Some say that it's palatal; others say its palatal-velar or pre-velar. Perhaps the place of articulation varies depending on the speaker. What is clear is that this "r" is always post-vocalic- it occurs word-finally and syllable finally if the syllable is not followed by a vowel. Speakers who use the approximant use the alveolar or uvular trill elsewhere.  The one exception is the city of Leiden where speakers use the approximant in all positions.

The sociolinguistic data regarding this sound is very interesting: a) it is most common in the western part of the Netherlands; b) women use it more than men; c) children use it more than adults.

The latter two points may be characteristic of sound change in general. Women tend to be at the forefront of leading a sound change more than men and children more than adults. It appears that this approximate is spreading in the Netherlands. In the Flemish part of Belgium, however, this is not the case. Most Flemings use the alveolar trill in all positions. A few, however, substitute it with the uvular trill. The approximant, though, is not used by Flemish speakers. Unlike Dutch speakers, they have not adopted it.

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