Friday 9 August 2013

On rhotacism

'Rhotacism' refers to several phenomena related to the usage of the consonant sound /r/ (whether as an alveolar tap, alveolar trill, or the much rarer uvular trill), and it takes three forms:

1. the excessive or idiosyncratic use of the r (think of ham actors in pantomime)

2. the inability to pronounce (or difficulty in pronouncing) r (exemplified by the brash telly man Jonathan Ross (nicknamed 'Wossie' by his fans.)

3. the conversion of another consonant into r.

In his case I can only think of parody Orientals like Team America's puppet Kim Jong Il singing I'm So Ronery.

Rhotacism crops up in today's blog because I recently stumbled across this clip featuring the fondly-remembered actor Joe Gladwin (1906-1987). It's a 30-second television advertisement for Hovis digestive biscuits and you can find it on YouTube by entering the name Joe Gladwin. Have a look and note the quite extraordinary gurgling way he pronounces the word 'brainwave'. Is this type 1, 2 or 3 rhotacism? Or a giddy combination of all three? I's sure a phonologist out there could tell me exactly what's going on when he says this word.

Gladwin was born in the Ordsall district of Salford, near Manchester. I lived not far away in the late 1970s and noticed a high incidence of such rhotacism among older residents. I wonder if it's still going strong - or "stvwrong".

He was a low-key actor, although well known as the voice of Hovis the bakers for many years. He was imitated lovingly by the reliably wonderful Paul Whitehouse as an accident-prone pensioner called Unlucky Alf.

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