Does this pronunciation have a linguistic name? Is it an accent thing?
March 18, 2013 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Actor Clark Gregg (our beloved Agent Coulson) has a voice that I really enjoy. One feature I like a lot is the way he says R sounds, especially in the middle or ends of words. For an example, at around 0:35 in the trailer for Much Ado About Nothing (, it is especially apparent in the way he says "merry war" and "skirmish." (Also notable in the interrogation scene in "Thor" when he says "That's hurtful.") It's not a burred or rolled or flipped R, it's just sort of... liquid-sounding? I think it sounds really neat. In the past, I have noticed this in other actors and I always really like the way it sounds. My question: is this a feature of a certain kind of regional accent? Is there an official/proper term for the sound I mean? Or is it just an individual thing that certain people have that isn't tied to anything in particular? Linguists of MeFi, help me out!
posted by oblique red to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know (I'm no linguist) but it reminds me of the way some people (like Ira Glass) say their Ls. Like they're not actually touching their tongue to the roof of their mouth when they say those letters.
posted by pyjammy at 10:10 AM on March 18, 2013

posted by atlantica at 10:13 AM on March 18, 2013

Not a linguist, but is it maybe a little retroflex? (i.e., tongue curled back a little more than usual)
posted by en forme de poire at 10:44 AM on March 18, 2013

Looks like he was born in Boston, so perhaps he was once non-rhotic and now is attempting to streamline his speech for the screen. The trademark broad A will also contribute to this. "War" could become "woaah," but my linguistics training is old and dusty.
posted by oflinkey at 12:22 PM on March 18, 2013

I've listened to that section of the trailer maybe a dozen times, and all I hear is an alveolar approximant, which is totally standard across the United States and Canada. Where are you from, what is your reference for what a "normal" /r/ would sound like? Regarding pyjammy's point, speakers of North American English do not touch their tongue to the roof of their mouth in making an /r/, and indeed the technical term is "liquid", just like you suggest.

If you are American and still find this /r/ interesting, one totally speculative possibility is that you can hear the difference between bunched and retroflex approximant /r/s. Generally these are described as articulatory variants that are not perceived by listeners, but I don't think it's been conclusively shown that nobody can ever hear this would actually be really interesting if that's what you were picking up on.
posted by ootandaboot at 11:16 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: In answer to ootandaboot:

I have lived all my life in the southeastern US and currently live in the Atlanta area. One side of my family is Southern and the other comes from the Ohio/Pennsylvania area. In my own speech, I use Southern constructions and slang (y'all, etc.) but I am often told that I don't have much of a Southern accent overall. I have also done a lot (like, twenty years or so) of choral singing and occasionally do voiceover work as part of my job, so that might make me a little more attuned to fine distinctions of articulation? Dunno, it sounds plausible anyway. *g*

The sound that I am noticing in this clip is definitely different than what I think of as a "normal" r sound. It isn't a BIG difference like non-rhotic accents or a rolled/trilled or flipped r sound, but it is distinguishable. It is a sound that I have noticed in various peoples' speech throughout my life and I always have found it attractive to listen to. (I'm very annoyed at myself that I can't remember any of the other people who have it so I can provide more data points here! I do know that they have included both men and women.)

It is difficult to describe the sound, but the words that come to mind, besides liquid, are "warm" and "blurred." It happens in words where the r is following a vowel, making an "er" sound? I have tried to reproduce the sound myself (which I'm sure was hilarious to witness) and I can't quite make it happen (though I can get closest saying "skirmish.") It feels like-- and take this with a huge grain of salt because I'm no linguist-- it is possibly caused by the middle part of the tongue being a little further back and/or higher in the mouth? When I make the sound my normal way, my tongue feels a little higher in my mouth, closer to my front top teeth, and also maybe a bit stiffer?

If I can think of anyone else that talks this way I'll post here! Thanks for the discussion- this is all really interesting.
posted by oblique red at 5:37 PM on March 19, 2013

Here's a reasonably accessible and short paper about different /r/ articulations and how people perceive them.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:00 PM on March 19, 2013

I can't comment on the linguistic features of his voice, but I also really like listening to Clark Gregg speak. He has a very pleasant-sounding voice. I think he has kind of a melodic way of speaking and really crisp diction.
posted by Aquifer at 5:08 PM on March 20, 2013

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