Rhotacism (sound change)

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Sound change and alternation

Rhotacism (/ˈrtəˌsɪzəm/)[1] or rhotacization is a sound change that converts one consonant (usually a voiced alveolar consonant: /z/, /d/, /l/, or /n/) to a rhotic consonant in a certain environment. The most common may be of /z/ to /r/.[2]

The term comes from the Greek letter rho, denoting "r".


The southern, Tosk dialects, the base of Standard Albanian, changed /n/ to /r/, but the northern, Gheg dialects did not:[2]

  • zëri vs. zâni 'the voice'
  • gjuri vs. gjuni 'the knee'
  • Shqipëria vs. Shqypnia 'Albania'
  • i gëzuar vs. i gëzuem 'cheerful'
  • i tretur vs. i tretun 'lost'
  • i qeshur vs. i qeshun 'smiling'
  • këputur vs. këputun 'broken'
  • i prekur vs. i prekun 'touched'
  • i habitur vs. i habitun 'amazed'
  • Arbëria vs. Arbënia 'Albania' (older name of the country)
  • i djegur vs. i djegun 'burnt'
  • i dehur vs. i dehun 'drunk'
  • i pjekur vs. i pjekun 'baked'
  • druri vs. druni 'wood'
  • bëra vs. bona 'did'
  • vura vs. vuna 'put'
  • zura vs. zuna 'caught'
  • pluhur vs. pluhun 'dust'
  • i lumtur vs. i lumtun 'happy'
  • dashuri vs. dashni 'love'


In Aramaic, Proto-Semitic n changed to r in a few words:

  • bar "son" as compared to Hebrew ben (from Proto-Semitic *bnu)
  • trên and tartên "two" (masculine and feminine form respectively) as compared to Demotic Arabic tnēn and tintēn, from Proto-Semitic *ṯnaimi and *ṯnataimi. Compare also Aramic tinyânâ "the second one", without the shift.


Aquitanian *l changed to the tapped r between vowels in Basque.[3] It can be observed in words borrowed from Latin; for example, Latin caelum (meaning "sky, heaven") became zeru in Basque (caelum > celu > zeru; compare cielo in Spanish). The original l is preserved in the Souletin dialect: caelum > celu > zelü.


Western dialects of Finnish are characterised by the pronunciation /r/ or /ɾ/ of the consonant written d in Standard Finnish kahden kesken- kahren kesken (two together = one on one).[example needed] The reconstructed older pronunciation is .

Goidelic languages

In Manx, Scottish Gaelic and some dialects of Irish, a /kn/ cluster developed into /kr/, often with nasalization of the following vowel, as in Scottish Gaelic cnoc [krɔ̃xk] ('hill').[2]

Germanic languages

All surviving Germanic languages, which are members of the North and West Germanic families, changed /z/ to /r/, implying a more approximant-like rhotic consonant in Proto-Germanic.[4] Some languages later changed all forms to r, but Gothic, an extinct East Germanic language, did not undergo rhotacism.

Proto-Germanic Gothic Old Norse (Old English)
Modern English
Old Frisian[5] Dutch (Old High German)
Modern German
*was,1st/3rd sg *wēzum1st pl was, wēsum
var, várum
(wæs, wǣron)
was, were
was, wēren  
was, waren
(was, wārum)
war, waren
*fraleusaną,inf *fraluzanazp.part. fraliusan, fralusans

(forlēosan, forloren)
forlese, forlorn
urliāsa, urlāren  
verliezen, verloren
(farliosan, farloren)
verlieren, verloren

Note that the Modern German forms have levelled the rhotic consonant to forms that did not originally have it.


Intervocalic /t/ and /d/ are commonly lenited to [ɾ] in most of North American and Australian English, as well as in some accents of Irish English and English English,[6] a process known as tapping or less accurately as flapping:[7] got a lot of /gɒtə lɒtə/ becomes [gɒɾə lɒɾə]. Contrast is usually maintained with /r/, and the [ɾ] sound is rarely perceived as /r/.[2]


In Central German dialects, especially Rhine Franconian and Hessian, /d/ is frequently realised as [ɾ] in intervocalic position. The change also occurs in Mecklenburg dialects. Compare Borrem (Central Hessian) and Boden (Standard German).

Romance languages


  • flōsnomflōremacc (Old Latin flōsem)
  • genusnomgenerisgen (from *geneses, cf. Sanskrit janasas)
  • rōbus,[8] rōbustusrōbur, corrōborāre (verb from *conrobosare)
  • jūstusde jūre (from de jouse)
  • esterō (from esō)

It reflects a highly regular change in pre-Classical Latin. Intervocalic s in Old Latin, which is assumed to have been pronounced /z/), invariably became r. Intervocalic s in Classical Latin suggests either borrowing (rōsa), or reduction of an earlier ss after a long vowel or a diphthong (pausa < paussa, vīsum < *vīssum < *weid-tom). The s was preserved initially (septum) and finally and in consonant clusters.

The English word honour or honor is derived from Anglo-Norman honour, which, in turn, was derived from Late Latin honor, earlier honos, which became honor by analogy with the oblique stem of honor-: honoris genitive).

The d and the l changed to r before another d or l so that the same consonant would not appear twice in a row (dissimilation):

  • mediusmerīdiēs (from *medi-diēs)
  • caelumcaeruleus (from *cael-uleus)

The phenomenon was noted by the Romans themselves:

In many words in which the ancients said s, they later said r... foedesum foederum, plusima plurima, meliosem meliorem, asenam arenam

— Varro, De lingua Latina, VII, 26, In multis verbis, in quo antiqui dicebant s, postea dicunt r... foedesum foederum, plusima plurima, meliosem meliorem, asenam arenam


In Neapolitan, rhotacism affects words etymologically containing intervocalic or initial /d/.


In Galician-Portuguese, rhotacism occurred from /l/ to /r/, mainly in consonant clusters ending in /l/, as in the words obrigado, "thank you" (originarily from "obliged [in honorably serving my Sir]"); praia, "beach"; prato, "plate" or "dish"; branco, "white"; prazer, "pleasure"; praça, "square". Compare Spanish obligado (obliged), playa, plato, blanco, placer, plaza from Latin obligatus, plagia, platus, blancus (Germanic origin), placere (verb), platea.

In contemporary Brazilian Portuguese, rhotacism of /l/ in the syllable coda is characteristic of the Caipira dialect; further rhotacism in the nationwide vernacular includes planta, "plant", as [ˈpɾɐ̃tɐ], lava, "lava", as /ˈlarvɐ/ (then homophonous with larva, worm/maggot), lagarto, "lizard", as [laʁˈɡaʁtu] (in dialects with guttural coda r instead of a tap) and advogado, "lawyer", as [ɐ̞de̞vo̞ʁˈɡadu]. The nonstandard patterns are largely marginalised, as rhotacism is regarded as a sign of speech-language pathology or illiteracy.


Rhotacism, in Romanesco, shifts l to r before a consonant, like certain Andalusian dialects of Spanish. Thus, Latin altus (tall) is alto in Italian but becomes arto in Romanesco. Rhotacism used to happen when l was preceded by a consonant, as in the word ingrese (English), but modern speech has lost that characteristic.

Another change related to r was the shortening of the geminated rr, which is not rhotacism. Italian words errore, guerra and marrone "error", "war", "brown" become erore, guera and marone.


Romanian rhotacism shifts intervocalic l to r and n to r.

Thus, Latin caelum (meaning 'heaven' or 'sky') became Romanian cer, Latin fenestra (meaning 'window') becomes Romanian fereastră and Latin felicitas (meaning 'happiness') Romanian fericire.

Some northern Romanian dialects and Istro-Romanian also changed all intervocalic [n] to [ɾ] in words of Latin origin.[9] For example, Latin bonus became Istro-Romanian bur, as compared to standard Daco-Romanian bun.

Other languages

Rhotacism (mola > mora, filum > fir, sal > sare) exists in Gallo-Italic as well, in Western Lombard, Alpine Lombard and Ligurian.


Rhotacism is particularly widespread in the island of Sicily, but almost completely absent in the Sicilian varieties of the mainland (Calabrese and Salentino). It affects intervocalic and initial /d/: cura from latin caudam, peri from latin pedem, reci from latin decem.


In Andalusian Spanish, particularly in Seville, at the end of a syllable before another consonant, l is replaced with r: Huerva for Huelva. The reverse occurs in Caribbean varieties: Puelto Rico instead of Puerto Rico.


In Sanskrit, words ending in -s other than -as become -r in sandhi with a voiced consonant:

  • naus (before p, t, k) vs naur bharati
  • agnis (before p, t, k) vs agnir mata

It is not properly rhotacism as r and s are then simply allophones.

South Slavic languages

(This section relies on the treatment in Greenberg 1999.[10])

In some South Slavic languages, rhotacism occasionally changes a voiced palatal fricative [ʒ] to a dental or alveolar tap or trill [r] if it is between vowels:

  • moreš (Slovene, dialectal Serbo-Croatian) 'you can' from earlier možešь
  • kdor (Slovene) from earlier kъto-že

The beginning of the change is attested in the Freising manuscripts, the 10th century AD, which shows both the archaism (ise 'which' < *jь-že) and the innovation (tere 'also' < *te-že). It is also found in individual lexical items in Bulgarian dialects, дорде 'until' (< *do-že-dĕ) and Macedonian, сеѓере (archaic: 'always'). However, the results of the sound change have largely been reversed by lexical replacement in dialects in Serbia and Bosnia from the 14th century.

Dialects in Croatia and Slovenia have preserved more of the lexical items with the change and even extended grammatical markers in -r from many sources that formally merged with the rhotic forms that arose from the sound change: Slovene dialect nocor 'tonight' (< *not'ь-sь-ǫ- + -r-) on the model of večer 'evening' (< *večerъ). The reversal of the change is evident in dialects in Serbia where the -r- formant is systematically removed: Serbian veče 'evening'.

See also

  • Lambdacism, the related condition or phonetic shift with regard to the sound /l/


  1. ^ "American English Dictionary: Definition of rhotacism". Collins. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d Catford (2001:178)
  3. ^ Trask, R. Larry (2008), Wheeler, Max W., ed., A Historical Dictionary of Basque (PDF), University of Essex, p. 29, retrieved January 22, 2011
  4. ^ Catford (2001:179)
  5. ^ D. Hofmann, A.T. Popkema, Altfriesisches Handwörterbuch (Heidelberg 2008).
  6. ^ Harris, John (1994). English Sound Structure. Blackwell. p. 121. ISBN 0-631-18741-3.
  7. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (2006). A Course in Phonetics. Thomson. pp. 171–3. ISBN 978-1-4130-0688-9.
  8. ^ robus1; rōbur. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
  9. ^ Nandris (1963:255–258)
  10. ^ Greenberg (1999)


  • Catford, J.C. (2001), "On Rs, rhotacism and paleophony", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 31 (2): 171–185, doi:10.1017/S0025100301002018
  • Crowley, Terry (1997). An Introduction to Historical Linguistics (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195583786.
  • Greenberg, Marc L. (1999), "Multiple Causation in the Spread and Reversal of a Sound Change: Rhotacism in South Slavic", Slovenski jezik/Slovene Linguistics Studies, 2: 63–76 http://hdl.handle.net/1808/803
  • Nandris, O (1963), Phonétique Historique du Roumain, Paris: Klincksiek
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