Why Do Languages Change? (2010) by R. L. Trask. pp. 5-6

    Our story moves now to Scotland, where the word grammar underwent a small change of pronunciation to glamour, reflecting the awkwardness of having two instances of /r/ in one word.

Can somebody please help me sympathize? grammar isn't awkward for me to pronounce.

  • 1
    Is there confirmation that this is true? I'm imagining a Scottish accent, and don't see it.
    – Malady
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 1:57
  • grammar lacking two instances of /r/ in most pronunciation forms. /ˈɡramə/. I assume some local Englishes it would be /ˈɡramar/ Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 7:58
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    The claim seems simply wrong to me. What do those Scots do with dreamer, rumour, or harbour? Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 9:50
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    The central gag in the 30 Rock episode "The Rural Juror" hinges on the difficulty of pronouncing words with two /r/s, but "rural" and "juror" lack "grammar"'s intervening /m/. Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 16:58
  • 2
    If you have a rhotic pronunciation of r, but Scottish has a trill, then you cannot relate very well. Since r changed to l, it is rather obvious that it was pronounced at the tip of the tongue, not the back. In that case, I agree that it is awkward (also compare arkward vs awkward, lol such coincidences)..
    – vectory
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 16:20

5 Answers 5


The only sensible interpretation of that claim that I can see is that having two instances of r in a word poses a special articulatory challenge. However there is no evidence to support that claim. A more plausible explanation is that the cause is perceptual. First, we may assume (there is some evidence) that r has a subtle long-distance effect in words, lowering of F3. In a word with two rhotics, it may be difficult to tell what the source of the general rhotic flavor of the word is, so listeners filter out one of the rhotics as being a phonetic side-effect of the other. This occurs in other languages including Georgian, Yimas and Sundanese.

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    I don't think we can dismiss the articulatory challenge out of hand. There are corroborating facts, such as the relative typological rarity of English's /r/ and its prevalence as a target of speech therapy. Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 23:32
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    Note also that the other languages with r-dissimilation do not have the odd r that English has, but they have the dissimilation.
    – user6726
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 23:48
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    That's true, though that doesn't mean their /r/ isn't also difficult to articulate. The alveolar tap and trill in Spanish, for example, are more or less the same as the Scottish English /r/, so it would be circular to use that example to rule out the articulatory explanation for the Scottish one. (And I acknowledge that this is a different /r/ than the one I mentioned above, but the source as quoted doesn't clarify which one is in questio in the Scottish example.) Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 23:53
  • 3
    The alveolar trip in Italian is pretty much "the" speech impediment that most people are familiar with (lisp being second at some distance, I suspect).
    – LjL
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 0:13

Since there was a question in the comments about the existence of the phenomenon I have searched the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts for short words of the pattern C[rl]V+[rl]e? with the corpus query processor. The phenomenon clearly exists on a statistical level, with two l's close to each other being the most deprecated combo:

 Combo  tokens types  sample words 
 Cr_r     1856    25  prayer, prior
 Cl_l       16     1  flail
 Cr_l     4561    20  cruel, trial
 Cl_r     7931    35  clear, floor

The pattern for the search was [word="[b-dfgk-npqstvwxz]l[aeiouy]+re?"] (for the last query).


I don’t know if that helps you because I am German, but I find two r awkward mainly because to me it doesn’t sound like a legit syllable. In the German language, there is no letter that sounds like the English r, so to me it doesn’t even sound as if I am speaking at all, but rather as if I was imitating a roaring lion or a large toad. I also struggle with words that, unlike rural, have a consonant between the two r (like grapefruit). Sadly, we also use the word Grapefruit in Germany as there is no real translation (some people call it a Pampelmuse, but that’s technically a different fruit). Also, again that probably doesn’t contribute 100% to your question as it refers to another language, but there are examples of words or names with two r that are changed or pronounced differently when they find its way into our language (like the character roronoa Zorro from the manga/anime One Piece, whose name is the same in English, but in German he is called lorenor zorro which has only one spoken r.) it also apart from the th the most difficult to pronounce for most English language learners and I‘ve often heard people pronouncing words like „rapper“ more like wapper (whatever that is). For a native English speaker, this barrier obviously isn’t there because they are used to it, but probably the „this r sounds like a toad coughing something up and two r make it sound totally awkward“ stays the same?


When there is a homorganicity phenomenon, there is generally a tendency to distinguish the phoneme from its twin (dissimilation) or to fusion them in a same phoneme (assimilation). That can occur even though those phonemes are far away from each other (like in Latin, see aris/alis). So, phonetic is not at stake, it is a phonological phenomenon.


Scottish has a trill, not a rhotic for R. Since r changed to l, it is rather obvious that it was pronounced at the tip of the tongue, not the back. Otherwise I'd have doubts that I'm confusing Scottish with an Irish accent.

Consider that next to perception (as mentioned in another answer), production might also play a role, especially for children (I wuv you vewy much and the like). I agree that it is awkward (also compare arkward vs awkward, such coincidences). In particular, the sequence of the tongue through the mouth stresses antagonistic muscles repeatedly in succession for those letters. Naturally, the tongue get's cramped only after the succession, but grama would obviously clash with a word that's reserved? On the other hand, glamour might be a glorious egg-corn.

At any rate I just wanted to note the trill or tap, which was alluded to in prior comments.

  • As a terminology note, a trilled R is still a rhotic: "rhotic" is a general term for R-sounds of all types.
    – TKR
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 21:18
  • I'm refering to rhotic dialects
    – vectory
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 21:32
  • The point is the same: Scottish dialects are rhotic, and the type of rhotic they use is a trill.
    – TKR
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 21:36

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