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Last night I was thinking about the trill sounds and how most languages I know about have just one, though they vary in which one they have.

Most common seems to be the alveolar trill /r/, as in Italian, Spanish, and many languages.

Then German, depending on the variety, has the uvular trill /ʀ/ which I can seldom produce.

The only language I am familiar with that has two contrasting trills is Czech, with an alveolar trill, and its famous/unique fricative trill, ř.

Caveats: Yes there are languages such as German that have two non-contrasting trills, which those sounds being allophones distributed among the varieties, and languages which contrast a trilled "r" with one or more other types of "r" such as taps/flaps. I'm not concerned with those for this question.

But are there some less well-known languages that have three or more contrasting trills?

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  • Depends on what you mean by trill. Do you include taps and flaps? If so, then Spanish contrasts a tap with a trill, Warlpiri contrasts a retroflex flap with an alveolar trill, and Sivisa Titan contrasts a bilabial trill with an alveolar tap/trill. Jun 9 '13 at 4:21
  • No I don't consider taps to be trills. I tried to rule out the Spanish example when I said Yes there are languages ... which contrast a trilled "r" with one or more other types of "r" but I suppose I better include more and more precise caveats (-: Now I would include any contrast with sounds with multiple allophonic realizations where one such of each is a trill. So your Sivisa Titan example may fit. Jun 9 '13 at 4:31
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On the Konstanz University site there is a project, DAS GRAMMATISCHE RARITÄTENKABINETT, "a leisurely collection to entertain and instruct". There we find an entry on the Dravidian language "Toda" with these notes:

Phenomenon | apical trills at three places of articulation (fronted alveolar, alveolar, retroflex) (see Image), both without and with palatalization

Toda has a Wikipedia entry with more information. These are the six listed trills:

  • /r̘/ - plain apical alveolar trill
  • /r̘ʲ/ - palatized apical alveolar tril
  • /r̠/ - plain apical alveolar trill (concave, aka "retroflex")
  • /r̠ʲ/ - palatized apical alveolar trill (concave, aka "retroflex")
  • /ɽ͡r/ - plain subapical palatal trill (retroflex)
  • /ɽ͡rʲ/ - palatized subapical palatal trill (retroflex)
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  • I'll add some key points from the links you posted. Thanks for finding the clear trilliest language in the world! )= Jun 12 '13 at 0:14
  • I suspected that a retroflex trill is not physiologically possible: Wikipedia says "An alleged retroflex trill found in Toda has been transcribed [ɽ] (that is, the same as the retroflex flap), but might be less ambiguously written [ɽ͡r], as only the onset is retroflex, with the actual trill being alveolar."
    – jogloran
    Jun 23 '13 at 15:12
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In some Berber languages, we can find 4 sorts of trill : [r], [rˤ], [ʀ], [ʀ̥]. But it is not certain that it may be considered phonemes (for some Berber varieties it can be true whereas for others obviously it is not the case). These sounds can be, respectively, the surface forms of : geminated tap, pharyngalized geminated tap, geminated voiced uvular fricative, geminated voiceless uvular fricative. Despite that, I have provided this information because the phonemic reality cannot be only determined with a contrastive relation. Sometimes it can be hard to know with certainty if there are phonemes or not.

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Russian contrasts soft [р'] with hard [р].

Compare

  • дурь "foolishness" vs дур (genitive plural of дура "silly woman")
  • пар "vapor" vs парь (imperative of "to steam")
  • жар "hotness" vs жарь (imperative of "to roast")
  • прачка "loundress" vs прячь-ка (imperarative of "to hide")
  • праха (genitive of "ashes") vs. пряха "female spinner"
  • кор (genitive plural of кора "bark, cortex") vs. корь "measles"
  • рад "pleased" vs. ряд "row"
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  • 2
    Strange that Wikipedia seems to have nothing to say about this trilled palatalized "r" in Russian but does seem to say that's what the sound is. Still this only places it equal to Czech with two trills, not the "more than two" that I'm really wondering about. Jun 9 '13 at 13:48
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    @ubadub This is not IPA brackets, it is the notation which is taught in Russian schools ("phonetic analysis"). Like this: phoneticonline.ru/%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%B1%D0%BE%D1%80
    – Anixx
    Sep 21 '18 at 20:39
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    Which is highly non-standard, and either shouldn't be used here, or should be specifically indicated before usage.
    – ubadub
    Sep 21 '18 at 21:02
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    @ubadub It is highly standard because every Russian who went to school knows it.
    – Anixx
    Sep 21 '18 at 21:30
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    This is not a Russian language site nor is the question specifically about Russian.
    – ubadub
    Sep 21 '18 at 21:31

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