LINGUIST List 12.2753

Sat Nov 3 2001

Sum: Trills and Second Language Accent

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Karen S. Chung, Trills and L2 accent

Message 1: Trills and L2 accent

Date: Sat, 3 Nov 2001 18:45:36 +0800
From: Karen S. Chung <>
Subject: Trills and L2 accent

 Here is the summary on (1) alveolar and uvular trills as separate
phonemes, and (2) accents in L2 learners, by Mia Shen, a student in my
Phonetics II class at National Taiwan University.

 Karen Steffen Chung

 I asked two questions:

 (1) Are there languages in which the alveolar trill and uvular trill
co-occur as separate phonemes?

 (2) Are people who learn a foreign language after puberty necessarily
doomed to having a foreign accent due to influence from their mother tongue?

 I am grateful to the following linguists for their responses and
excellent data:

 Eleonora Deak <>
 Angus B. Grieve-Smith <>
 Michael Johnstone <>
 Jeff Lilly <>
 Robert Orr <>
 Johannes Reese <>
 Donald F. Reindl <>
 Harold F. Schiffman <>
 Koen Sebregts <>
 Larry Trask <>
 Josefina Vitale <>
 Colin Whiteley <>
 Tomasz Wisniewski <>


 Karen S. Chung, my phonetics teacher, who helped me edit
 this summary
 <> and
 Hendrik Dammerboer, who first suggested the question about trills

 Replies to the first question, on whether any language contrasts
alveolar and uvular trills, were as follows:

 1. Three of the replies (Koen Sebregts, Larry Trask, Michael Johnstone)
cited Ladefoged and Maddieson's _The Sounds of World's Languages_, which
claims [p. 227] that some older speakers of Eastern dialects of Occitan may
maintain such a contrast; but that there probably is no other living
language which uses both alveolar and uvular trills as separate phonemes.

 2. Robert Orr cited Richard Runge's _The Pronunciation of Proto-Germanic
R_ (exact reference not given) for a possible example; I was not able to
follow up on this reference.

 3. Johannes Reese suggested that European Portuguese contrasts a uvular
trill (the double r) with the short r, which is alveolar.

 Hendrik Dammerboer, the originator of the question, questions whether
the double r is really a uvular trill, or a uvular or velar fricative. In
the Brazilian Portuguese of Rio de Janeiro, he says, the long r becomes a
velar fricative, and in the variety of Sao Paulo the friction disappears and
long r is pronounced as h like in Rio [hi:u] The short r is a short alveolar
trill and may be pronounced as a tap. The long r includes r at the beginning
of a word, r after n, l, s, and rr, which occurs only between vowels. Short
r is r in all other positions. Both long r (written rr) or short r may occur
intervocalically: _carro_ 'car' vs. _caro_ 'expensive'.

 Colin Whiteley also cited Brazilian Portuguese in which, he says, single
r's, except in word-initial position, are alveolar taps, as in Spanish.
Double r's and initial r's are generally unvoiced fricatives or
approximants, sometimes taps or light trills. The point of articulation
varies according to the degree of openness of the following vowel, from
uvular ("falar") all the way forward to palatal ("rio"). The utterance
final -r varies from mute to unvoiced uvular to alveolar tap.

 4. According to Donald Reindl, Chechen is a language in which the
alveolar trill (written as "r" in Cyrillic orthography) and uvular trill
(written as "gI" in Cyrillic orthography) co-occur as separate phonemes.

 5. From Tomasz Wisniewski: Some Arabic and Georgian speakers trill
uvular fricatives (transcribed gh), so Arabic and Georgian have the two
kinds of trills as separate phonemes for some people.

 6. From Harold Schiffman: The Machwaya dialect of Romany ('Gypsy')
contrasts an alveolar tap - not a trill- with a uvular /r/, also not a
trill, but a more fricative [(upside-down) R] like German. One of a few
minimal pairs is [rom] (alveolar) 'Rome' vs. [rhom] (the orthography to
represent [(upside down) R] 'a Gypsy man'.


 There was considerable consensus regarding the second question, about
whether it is possible for an L2 learner to speak without a foreign accent
in their new language. Angus B. Grieve-Smith e-mailed me his paper entitled
"Foundations for 'Sound Houses'", in which he asserts that it is difficult
to add new varieties to our repertoire after the 'critical period', but
are a few exceptional people who can pick up new varieties in relatively
short periods of time. The effect of motivation in learning is significant,
he says. If learners have a strong desire to fit in, they are likely to pick
up more nativelike speech. However, motivation alone is not always enough to
overcome the critical period effect. Not everyone is an 'exceptional
acquirer', i.e. someone with unusually accurate mental representations of
images and sounds, or unusual speed in recognizing and manipulating

 Koen Sebregts pointed me to the work of Susan Gass and Larry Selinker.

 The other replies mostly asserted that people who learn a foreign
language after puberty don't necessarily have to be doomed to speaking with
a foreign accent due to L1 influence. Success depends on an individual's
motivation to assimilate, and on their aptitude and attitude, confirming
Grieve-Smith's views above.

 Mia Shen

 Fourth-year student,
 Departments of Foreign Languages
 & Literatures and
 International Business
 National Taiwan University

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