Rhotacism (sound change)

Not to be confused with R-colored vowel.
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".

In specific languages


The southern Tosk dialects, on which modern standard Albanian is based, changed /n/ to /r/ while the northern Gheg dialects did not:[2]


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


Ancient Basque *l changed into a 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; cf. cielo in Spanish). The original l is preserved in the Souletin dialect: caelum > celu > zelü.


Western dialects of Finnish are characterized by the pronunciation /r/ or /ɾ/ of the consonant written d in Standard Finnish. Ex. kahden kesken- kahren kesken (two together = one on one) The reconstructed pronunciation in older Finnish 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, members of the North and West Germanic families, underwent a change of /z/ to /r/, implying a more approximant-like rhotic consonant in early Germanic.[4] Some languages have regularized, giving all forms an r. Gothic, an extinct East Germanic language, retained s or z and 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


  1. The Modern German forms have leveled the rhotic consonant to forms that did not originally have it.


Intervocalic /t/ and /d/ are commonly lenited to [ɾ] in North American and Australian English, a process known as flapping: got a lot of /gɒtə lɒtə/ becomes [gɒɾə lɒɾə]. Contrast is maintained with /r/ because it is never realized as a flap in these dialects of English.[2]


In Central German dialects, especially Rhine Franconian and Hessian, /d/ is frequently realized as [ɾ] in intervocalic position. The change also occurs in Mecklenburg dialects.


In Korean, the consonant , typically /n/, can be realized as /l~ɾ/, as in the surname Roh, and will assimilate into a following or preceding /l~ɾ/.

Romance languages


It reflects a highly regular change in pre-Classical Latin. Intervocalic s in the oldest attested Latin documents (assumed to have been pronounced /z/) invariably became r. Intervocalic s in Classical Latin suggests either borrowing (e.g. rōsa) or reduction of an earlier ss (e.g. pausa < paussa, vīsum < *vīssum < *weid-tom). Old s was preserved initially (septum), 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 consonants d or l changed to r before another d or l so the same consonant would not appear twice in a row (dissimilation).

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 is seen in a shift from the sound of d to an r sound:

(Italian vs. Neapolitan)

and, to a lesser extent, from the sound of an l to an r sound:


In Old Portuguese, rhotacism occurred from the /l/ to the /r/ sound, 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", and 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 while further rhotacism in the nationwide vernacular includes planta, "plant", as [ˈpɾɐ̃tɐ], lava, "lava", as /ˈlarvɐ/ (thus homophonous with larva, worm/maggot), lagarto, "lizard", as [laʁˈɡaʁtu] (in dialects with guttural coda r instead of a tap) and advogado, "lawyer", as [ɐ̞de̞vo̞ʁˈɡadu]. These non-standard patterns are largely marginalized, as rhotacism is regarded as either sign of speech-language pathology or part of the characteristics of illiterates people's speech.


Rhotacism, in Romanesco, consists of a shift from l to r when it is followed by a consonant, similar to what occurs in certain Andalusian dialects of Spanish. Thus, Latin altus (tall) which in Italian is alto in Romanesco becomes arto. In ancient Romanesco, it also happened 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. It is not rhotacism. The words errore, guerra and marrone "error", "war", "brown" in Romanesco become erore, guera and marone.


Romanian rhotacism consists of a shift from 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 further transformed all intervocalic [n] into [ɾ]. It occurred only with words of Latin origin.[7] For example, Latin bonus became Istro-Romanian bur, as compared to standard Daco-Romanian bun.

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


The phenomenon appears in Andalusian Spanish (particularly in Seville, where l, at the end of a syllable before another consonant, is replaced with r: Huerva instead of Huelva. The reverse is done 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:

It is not a case of rhotacism proper since r and s are simply allophones in those positions.

South Slavic languages

(This section relies on the treatment in Greenberg 1999.[8])

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

The beginning of the change is attested in the Freising manuscripts, a written document from 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 beginning in the fourteenth century.

Dialects in Croatia and Slovenia 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


  1. "American English Dictionary: Definition of rhotacism". Collins. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  2. 1 2 3 4 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. robus1; rōbur. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
  7. Nandris (1963:255–258)
  8. Greenberg (1999)


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