Rhotacism (speech impediment)
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In medical contexts, rhotacism (//) is the inability to pronounce or difficulty in pronouncing the sound r. Many speech pathologists call this problem de-rhotacization, because the sounds lose their rhotic quality rather than becoming rhotic.
Rhotic sounds are usually the last ones a child masters. Some people never learn to produce them; they substitute other sounds, such as the velar approximant, the uvular approximant (often called the French R), and the uvular trill.
In English, the most common occurrence of this type is a pronunciation perceived as closer to [w] (typically, though, actually the labiodental approximant [ʋ]), which is known as r-labialisation. This form of rhotacism has often been used in English-language media for comedic effect, since it evokes among English speakers a childlike way of pronouncing the letter R, an example being Elmer Fudd's pronunciation of "rabbit" [ˈɹ̠ʷæbɪ̈t] as "wabbit" [ˈwæbɪ̈t] in Looney Tunes cartoons. Often, people with the condition are mistakenly referred to as a person with a lisp, which is a completely different condition.
Rhotacism is more common among speakers of languages that have a trilled R, such as Arabic, Bulgarian, Finnish, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish (except in the provinces of Skåne, Halland, Blekinge, Öland and southern Småland). Most Mandarin speakers can pronounce R at the beginning of a word, but many cannot easily pronounce R that occurs at the end of a word, since that is how the sound is applied in Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters. This is a matter of phonotactics, and should not be thought of as a speech impediment.
In popular culture
- Elmer Fudd in Looney Tunes, as mentioned before.
- Barry Kripke in The Big Bang Theory is depicted as having this speech impediment. However, he has problems with both "R" and "L" sounds. His Siri on his iPhone answers him back as "Bawwy". He is last seen in Season 11 episode "The Bow Tie Asymmetry", at the end of the wedding, singing the song "At Last" as "At Wast".
- In the 1979 film Monty Python's Life of Brian, Pilate is also depicted as having this speech impediment. Because of this, people around him often cannot understand his words, and he is mocked by the townspeople of Jerusalem when he talks to them in the square.
- The leader of Hezbollah, Lebanese Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, is often ridiculed for his rhotacism, particularly his “Amwīka” and “Iswā’īl” for Arabic Amrīka ("America, the US"), Isrā’īl ("Israel").
- Tony Angelino a one time character from Only Fools and Horses suffered with Rhotacism during his stage performance of the Roy Orbison song Crying (Roy Orbison song)
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