July 15, 2007 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Which British dialect pronounces R's like a W?

ie. Pronouncing 'research' as 'wesearch". Is it Welsh?
posted by jazzkat11 to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's not a dialect, it's a speech impediment. Talk-show host Jonathan Ross, who's originally from east London, speaks this way which may have caused your confusion.
posted by Hogshead at 9:18 PM on July 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's called 'rhotacism'.

But long before Ross came along, it was traditionally associated (as an affectation) with upper-class speakers, hence the Monty Python references.
posted by holgate at 9:34 PM on July 15, 2007

I think there are some fine-grained distinctions here, but I'm not equipped to clear them up. But here are some places to start. Take a look at U and non-U British accents; upper class accents are also called received pronunciation (that is a page of sound samples, so you can see if this is the accent you're thinking of).

more sound samples of "talking posh" from the BBC

more discussion of accents across England; link to detailed RP discussion at bottom of page

Scroll down for a jokey how to acquire a British upper-class accent.

British and American pronunciation differences
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:58 PM on July 15, 2007

It's a weird sort of permanent affectation that some British folks have; it's not fake, but it's not exactly a speech impediment, either. As previously mentioned, Jonathan Ross has the same affectation. So does Sister Wendy the art nun. So does Edward Ka-Spel, singer of the Legendary Pink Dots.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:18 PM on July 15, 2007

And an awesome, impressively extensive collection of English dialects and accents in sound files.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:32 PM on July 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

See also this previous question which includes a free-wheeling discussion on the state of British accent as a register of class.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:35 PM on July 15, 2007

Elmer Fudd is believed to have evolved from a character called "Egghead".
posted by scheptech at 10:58 PM on July 15, 2007

The wikipedia page for Jonathan Ross refers to "a common dialectal variant of English common in the UK called the labiodental approximate. This pronunciation has increased in usage over the past 30 years and is mainly associated with speakers in the South West of England, although Ross is actually a Londoner."
posted by slightlybewildered at 11:48 PM on July 15, 2007

Yeah, I do this. I just can't get that edge on my r's. I'm learning Polish, so this difficulty is making things interesting.

I also can't distinguish between 'f' and 'th' (interestingly, aurally as well as orally) - like in death and deaf.

I'm not posh or from the South-west.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:02 AM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding Hogshead's post. Back in the day, my English teacher at school had this slight speech impediment (not as pronounced as Jonathan Ross), which made for interesting Shakespeare readings.
posted by saturnine at 3:44 AM on July 16, 2007

upper class accents are also called received pronunciation

No. RP is an 'educated' accent, one which like the upper class english accent has no connection to a particular region but they're quite different.
posted by atrazine at 3:47 AM on July 16, 2007

ie. Pronouncing 'research' as 'wesearch". Is it Welsh?

It probably is. Welsh people do this quite a bit. I spent a year in Wales, and I never got tired of my coworker's breathey "Wheally, Bill?" when she meant "Really, Bill?"

There's tons of good examples of this trend. An accessible one is found in the Welsh rap group Goldie Lookin' Chain's "Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do." The refrain becomes "wappers do!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:12 AM on July 16, 2007

Rick on the Young Ones speaks like this.
posted by Brittanie at 4:23 AM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have this to a degree, but not as bad as Wossy. I always considered it just a mild speech impediment. I'm from Liverpool.
posted by corvine at 4:45 AM on July 16, 2007

I was trying to think of upper-class types who had the r/w thing -- Lord David Cecil, I believe -- and Peter Cook's cameo in The Pwincess Bwide got stuck in my head.

Anyway, two factors come to mind. I'm sure that in some cases, it was a self-perpetuating affectation: that is, part hereditary, part learned, part mimicked. But I also wonder whether upper-class types were the only people with speech impediments that the BBC would customarily put on the air.
posted by holgate at 5:01 AM on July 16, 2007

I think it's Welsh; Terry Jones is the Pythonite who does it, and if you listen closely to Catherine Zeta-Jones, she slips her r's for w's when she's excited. On the Chicago soundtrack, listen for "My sister Vewonica and I..."
posted by mimi at 5:10 AM on July 16, 2007

Are we not talking about a speech impediment?

Being a Welshman and lived in Wales (North and South) for the most part of my life, I can say with certainty that it's definitely not Welsh.

We do however, rrrroll our Rs.
posted by popcassady at 5:52 AM on July 16, 2007

Nthing speech impediment. I have this to a minor extent and I'm from North East Scotland. I also can't rrrrrroll my Rs.
posted by Leud at 6:11 AM on July 16, 2007

Being a Welshman and lived in Wales (North and South) for the most part of my life, I can say with certainty that it's definitely not Welsh.

I think you're a little too close to the source to hear it, the same way that I don't tend to notice the more striking qualities of my American English New England dialect.

It's totally South Wales, like Cardiff/Newport. And you can hear it in some folks up through Powys, but it fades pretty rapidly. For example, lots of people have the r-to-w in Llandrindod and Builth, but almost no one does in Rhayader. And not many in Brecon do, despite Brecon being further south. Brecon and Rhayader have a relatively high number of native Welsh speakers, where the trilled r prevails.

People from South Wales don't trill the r, but they still have the heavy aspirant quality associated with a Welsh accent. It's a "breathy" r that ends up sounding like a w.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:20 AM on July 16, 2007

Here's a Pot Noodle advertisement featuring welsh actors.

Listen to when the miner tells the sheep "smell the noodle and find it in the wocks."
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:26 AM on July 16, 2007

It's Michael Palin who does it in Life of Brian.

Welease Woger!
posted by flabdablet at 7:05 AM on July 16, 2007

Mayor Curley, that's interesting because, to me, it sounds much more like 'rocks' rather than 'wocks'. Infact, doesn't Gareth roll that R?

Perhaps it has more to do with the following vowel?

Personally, I don't roll my Rs. I'm from Cardiff.
posted by popcassady at 7:22 AM on July 16, 2007

Mayor Curley, that's interesting because, to me, it sounds much more like 'rocks' rather than 'wocks'. Infact, doesn't Gareth roll that R?

Perhaps it has more to do with the following vowel?

I'm sure it does. I was a linguistics major, so I don't want to paint myself as some sort of expert based on undergrad qualifications, but I'm familiar with the material:

The vowels connected with the R have some baring as to whether the R is voiced (when you vibrate your glottis to make the sound) or unvoiced (just using air and your mouth to form the sound without using your voice box). Having the R as the first sound in the word is really the only time that I notice it-- the R tends to be voiced in that instance, and not in words like "Gareth," because there's a glottal stop in it (it comes out like "gar-reth" in welsh dialect and that's a result of the speaker slamming his vocal cords shut to stop the flow of air and sound for an instant).

Also, the advertisement I cited isn't the best example because the actor isn't southern, but I can hear that the R is moving towards W.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:18 AM on July 16, 2007

I've never noticed it particularly in the Welsh. As an Englishman who does this, I regard it as a speech impediment. However, it does seem predominant amongst the upper class as well (disclaimer - not upper class, never even met one until I went up to Cambridge at 22). So despite all the bickering and contradiction in this thread, the clear answer to your question is that there is not one particular dialect that this is diagnostic of. Some Welsh people, some toffs, and a lot of people from all over the country with speech impediments.
posted by nowonmai at 8:29 AM on July 16, 2007

Rhoticism! I heard my name.
posted by rhoticity at 10:23 AM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

oliver sacks has this, too.
posted by sdn at 10:32 AM on July 16, 2007

Mawwage. Mawwage is what brings us togethaa today. (Princess Bride)
posted by toastchee at 10:43 AM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been wondering something similar the past few weeks, since I became totally addicted to the British comedy "The Mighty Boosh". The character Naboo, played by Michael Fielding, replaces all his "L"s with "W"s, which to me, has a distinctively pleasing, if lower-class sound. Perhaps because it sounds a bit like a lovely English lady I know who lives outside of London.

Here's a clip with a few samples of Naboo's accent; I apologize in advance for the long lead-in and overdramatic soundtrack:


Anyone know if this is a specific regional accent?
posted by ad_hominem at 10:53 AM on July 16, 2007

I lived in Devon for a short while and heard this throughout Devon and Cornwall from folks of different classes. To the east, not so much...so, what Wikipedia said.
posted by ariana at 11:11 AM on July 16, 2007

Jonathan Ross has a speech impediment, not an "affectation".

But there is also, seperately, a distinct 'soft R' common among lots of older east-enders. Mostly it's a similar sound to the back-of-the-throat R which you hear in French. I grew up hearing it mostly from Jewish Londoners whose parents spoke Yiddish, the youngest of whom are now 70-ish.

Obviously connected to that are a small range of similar-but-weaker R sounds which are what happens when that sound can't be accurately reproduced by the speaker. Sometimes you get something like a 'w', but yer Cockernees often famously have a barely-pronounced gutteral 'yyy' sound instead. Some may have heard it used by that bloke who played Pete Beale on EastEnders.

So there's something a bit like it in east London. But Ross doesn't have that, and it's got nothing to do with the west country stuff mentioned above.
posted by genghis at 12:54 PM on July 16, 2007

genghis' point on French speakers raises an interesting point. I've noticed the same "R" -> "W" in many French speakers when they speak English. To me, it's always seemed clear that they're over-compensating and "unrolling" their "r"s. Instead of rolling them as they normally would, they're trying to pronounce something closer to an English "r". Without the native acuity to hear it right, they basically go too far, and pronounce a "w".

Not that that really has anything to do with why native English speakers would do it. I do know that many people who are "mealy-mouthed" (i.e., they pronounce their "s"es in the back corners of their mouth, like the stereotypical nerd) actually have a high-frequency hearing defect. Kids who pronounce their "s"es that way are routinely referred to having their hearing checked, since it often means they don't have the ability to hear the difference. Maybe it's something along those lines?
posted by LairBob at 4:43 PM on July 16, 2007

there is also, seperately, a distinct 'soft R' common among lots of older east-enders.

Yep, I know what you're talking about, and I absolutely associate it with elderly Jewish speakers, usually skilled tradespeople. Not just Whitechapel, either: I remember hearing it from the elderly Jewish tailor who'd suited my father when he was young. That's different from the upper-class thing, though.
posted by holgate at 11:37 PM on July 16, 2007

Wow, no offense, but there's some bad linguistics in this thread, especially Mayor Curley's. Voicing has nothing to do with it; neither do glottal stops (I think the word being reached for there is "geminate", but it's not a geminate either, it's just an "intervocalic /r/"). The people who said this was just a variant of /r/ that's common among a certain class are correct.

Rhotacism is actually just the opposite of what Holgate describes--a rhotacised pronunciation is making a sound more r-like, not less. The trouble is, "r-like" isn't a well-defined class--there are a ton of sounds in various languages that all play the role of (roughly) "coronal approximants," meaning that they're all articulated with the tongue just slightly too far away from the roof of the mouth to avoid causing audible turbulence, but close enough to modify the airflow and thus the sound. If it's close enough to cause turbulence, it's a fricative; closer yet and it's a stop; farther away and it's a vowel. But there's an in-between zone that partakes somewhat of the nature of a vowel and somewhat of a consonant.

There are lots of these in human language. If the air flows around the sides of the tongue, it's a later, some kind of l; if not, it's a central, some kind of r. But exactly which kind is very variable. So a sound which plays the role of /r/ in a phonological system might be labio-dental (as someone notes above), or apical (formed with the tongue tip) or dorsal (formed with the tongue blade). To naive English ears, it might sound like a w or an l or an r or a d or even an h (the French/German R is made by vibrating the uvula; "Racine" sounds to many students like "Hacine"). Since there are generally relatively few consonants with these characteristics in many languages, there's lots of room for variability and thus lots of ways to use it to show social or regional distinctions.

L sounds are very similar. In "standard" American English there are two [l]s, light and dark. Light [l] is used at the beginning of a syllable and is made with the tongue tip, and dark [l] is made with the tongue blade. Compare "la" with "all" and notice where your tongue constricts. Some people (Tom Brokaw being the most famous) have only dark [l], and many people hear it as almost a [w]. Similarly, there's a NYC-area pronunciation of /r/ that has the tongue blade raised in the back, the so-called "molar r", which I really can't describe but you'd know it if you heard it.

Sorry to go on so long--believe me, I could go on much longer.
posted by rodii at 2:15 PM on July 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

rodii: rhotacism is defined differently, depending upon whether it's regarded as a speech disorder or a linguistic phenomenon. (And it's different again from rhoticity.)
posted by holgate at 8:52 PM on July 21, 2007

So it is! I stand corrected, thanks.
posted by rodii at 8:15 AM on July 23, 2007

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