Forgive me if this seems vague, but this is mainly looking at the Germanic languages. Proto-Germanic probably used an alveolar of some sort, most likely a trill.

In terms of Modern Germanic languages, all of the North Germanic languages utilize the /ʀ/ with the exception of Danish which uses a different uvular phoneme I can't quite describe (in large part because I still struggle with its pronunciation,) that I am aware of all. So because I don't know of any North Ger. language I don't know about, I cannot quite say of any that don't use a uvular sound other than Icelandic.

Of the West Germanic langauges, English's <r> in some accents remained /r/ but /r̥/ was lost completely and it was also shortened into /ɾ/ in others and the most dramatic change afterwise was the development of /ɹ~ɻ~ɹˤ~ɻˤ/ before the time of Shakespear and massive colonial expansion, which preserved this variation in colonies that would later develop into such countries as America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and from there, many dialects began to use the <r> as a length marker on vowels, prefering to drop it, except in initial positions and in consonant clusters.

Dutch and Frisian kept the trilled <r> exclusively, unless I am unaware of some obscure accent, and German's split with most of Germany trading to the voiced and unvoiced uvular trills, and some southern and rural parts and other german speaking countries, like Austria, using a mixture of the two either or using solely the alveolar trills.

Are there any good guess as to why this phenomenon occurred in the Germanic languages all?

I would assume that it might could have something to do with the popularity of the French language or possibly some sort of celts that were involved with Germans, but for the rest, I am afraid I can't guess.

Sorry if this is a bit long and is a brief history on the English <r>


2 Answers 2


Any answer given here will perforce be speculative, but... There is a well-known speech impediment, rhotacism (or de-rhotacization), whereby speakers cannot pronounce sounds similar to the alveolar trill and substitute others, often velar or uvular. It's not a stretch to suppose that, when a speech impediment is so common as rhotacism, it shows a tendency of certain sounds to change into other sounds.

The fact that so many dialects and languages alternate between alveolar trills/flaps and uvular trills/approximants/fricatives is another indication that this change has a tendency to occur. (By alternating I mean both that one or the other of a pair of alternative realizations might appear in different dialects, and also that one realization might be favored at a given moment in time and another one a few centuries later.)

Just among Western European languages, this vacilation happens in several Germanic languages, in French, and in Portuguese.

As for the French borrowing hypothesis, see my answer here.


The standard explanation, insofar as it seems mysterious given the different articulators of the sounds, is that uvulars and lingual rhotics have in common a lowering of F3 – they sound similar. This page gives a list of claimed cases of "guttural r" (also this). It is reasonably likely that it arrived by boat in southern Norway and Sweden, and Denmark is the most likely immediate source, but how it got to Denmark is non-obvious. Independent development is not out of the question, especially given a phonetic motivation (acoustic similarity).

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