Rhotacism (speech impediment)

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In medical contexts, rhotacism (/ˈrtəsɪzəm/) is the inability to pronounce or difficulty in pronouncing the sound r. Speech pathologists call the condition de-rhotacization, because the sounds lose their rhotic quality rather than becoming rhotic.

Language development[edit]

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.

Across languages[edit]

Rhotacism is more common among speakers of languages that have a trilled R,[citation needed] 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).

People with rhotacism[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Elmer Fudd in Looney Tunes.
  • 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 (played by Michael Palin) 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.
  • In the 1986 animated film An American Tail, the character Gussie Mouseheimer (voiced by Madeline Kahn) also replaces 'R' and 'L' with 'W', similar to Elmer Fudd, especially when saying the word 'rally', pronouncing it as 'wawwy'.
  • In the 1974 film Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn again played a character with a speech impediment, this time the singer Lili von Shtüpp, the "Teutonic Titwillow".
  • In the 1987 film The Princess Bride, the character known as The Impressive Clergyman (played by Peter Cook), also has problems with multiple sounds, including "R" and "L", pronouncing "marriage" as "mawwage".[6]
  • Tony Angelino, a one-time character from Only Fools and Horses, suffered from rhotacism, becoming apparent during his stage performance of the Roy Orbison song "Crying".
  • Homestar Runner from Homestar Runner.
  • Baby Bear in Sesame Street also has this trait.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Radio's New Wave: Global Sound in the Digital Era. Routledge. 2013. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-136-44630-6.
  2. ^ Jones, Ellen E. (6 April 2014). "Lucy Worsley: The TV historian on BBC's The First Georgians, David Starkey and why she'll never appear on Strictly Come Dancing". The Independent. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  3. ^ a b Finnerty, Deirdre (3 May 2012). "Roy Hodgson: Is it wrong to mock the way he speaks?". BBC News. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  4. ^ Arsan, Andrew (2018). Lebanon: A Country in Fragments. London: Hurst & Company. ISBN 978-1-84904-700-5.
  5. ^ Barkham, Patrick (9 July 2012). "Chris Packham – the next David Attenborough?". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  6. ^ "The Princess Bride (1987)". IMDb. Retrieved 21 January 2019.