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Delattre, Pierre. Studies in French and Comparative Phonetics – T24

A Contribution to the History of “r grasseyé” *1

Repeated observation of the substituting of trilled apical r by a fricative apical r, in
Mexico, suggests an explanation for the evolution of r, in France, from trilled apical
r to a fricative uvular r. This fricative r is the one used most generally by the present
French generation. It shows almost complete loss of uvular trills (except for emphasis,
or in some provinces such as Vivarais). Its point of articulation is in the region of the
uvula and the back or more precisely the root of the tongue. It has been called “dorsal”
in recent descriptions 12 because, as the uvula does not vibrate, the part played by the
back of the tongue is felt more. But the constriction which causes the friction noise
when the breath goes through is still in the same region as when the uvula vibrated
regularly, that is, toward the upper pharynx and the very root of the tongue. It is more
correct to speak of the root of the tongue than of its back. The back implies that the
point of articulation has been brought slightly forward from the uvular region, as in the
case of Haïtian French where the fricative r is almost similar to the Spanish fricative
g of intervocal position (haga). This is not at all the case in Parisian French where the
tendency is on the contrary for the point of articulation to draw farther back, producing
friction and resonance by constriction of the very muscles of the pharynx.
It is this pharyngeal resonance which gives it its character “gras”, whence the expression
“r grasseyé”.

In Mexico, we have often heard cultivated people as well as others use a fricative
apical r. The intended sound was a trilled (multiple-vibration) r, but the vibration of
the tip of the tongue, functioning as an elastic organ, failed to get a start, and the result
was a mere constriction between the tongue tip and the alveolar ridge at a point
between those of [z] and [ʒ]. Naturally, the fricative sound resembles both [z] and [ʒ],
and would simply be an intermediary sound of these, were it not for the fact that the
aperture is greater, the tongue tip more raised and much more tense, and the sound is
held longer. (This change from trilled apical r to fricative apical r obviously recalls the
French change from [r] to [z], as in chaise for chaire, besicle for bericle, Gesainville
for Gerainville. However, the Mexican change is only phonetic, while the French
change became phonemic.) Navarro Tomás describes several defective r sounds of
206Spain and Spanish speaking countries. They come from both flapped r and trilled r;
and are found in various positions: intervocal, initial, and postconsonantal. In
naming them, he distinguishes the fricative r from the assibilated r. 23 From his descriptions,
all these defective r sounds seem to be related to the fricative r we heard in
Mexico. But our Mexican fricative r came only from a trilled r and not from a flapped
r. Therefore, we clearly noted it only in the following positions: initial (rico), after
l, n, s (Enrique), intervocal (torre); and rarely final (vivir).

The history of modern French r must have taken place in two phases. In the first
phase, uvular trilled r coexisted with and gradually replaced apical trilled r. The two
sounds can belong to the same phoneme. Their coexistence under one phoneme is a
common phenomenon in many dialectal forms of both Germanic and Romanic
languages today. The nearest example for us can be found in the Spanish of Puerto
Rico, where trilled r is a strongly vibrated r from the uvula. Only a trained ear can
distinguish it from an apical trilled r. In the second phase, the uvular trilled r became
a fricative r without changing its point of articulation. The vibrating of the uvula
failed to get a start, and the only sound produced was a voiced friction caused by the
running of the breath through the constriction.

This second phase is the one that was suggested to us by the existence of a fricative
apical r in Mexico. The first phase needs to have occurred only if the second is correct.

Those two phases were necessary to satisfy the French tendency to vocalic anticipation:
during the French articulation of the consonant, the tongue always tries to take
the position of the following vowel, thereby eliminating diphthongization. This vocalic
anticipation requires as much freedom of the tongue as possible. With the apical r
keeping the tip of the tongue occupied, the vowel position could not be anticipated
and a transitory movement from r to the following vowel was inevitable. The change
from apical to uvular r was a first step to liberate the tongue; then the change from
trilled to fricative r completed the liberation of the tongue, allowing it to articulate the
r while holding in advance the position of the following vowel.

We might even go farther back in our investigation of the “pourquois” and notice
that the French tendency to vocalic anticipation is in line with the characteristic of
clarté which is manifested in all other branches of the French language as well as in its
phonetics. A predilection for clearness may be the dominant psychological factor in
the phonetic evolution of French to its present form.207

1* Originally published in Modern Language Notes, December, 1944, pp. 562-564.

21 Maurice Grammont, Traité pratique de prononciation française, 9e éd. (Paris, Delagrave, 1938),
p. 67.

32 Navarro Tomás, Manuel de pronunciación española, 4a ed. (Madrid, 1932), pp. 117-118, 120, 122,