Rhotic fricatives on the hoof

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For a linguist, at least if the linguist is me, it is a thrill to cross for the first time the northern border that separates Austria from Czechia. Immediately after crossing the border last Sunday, my train stopped at Břeclav, and I was able to hear over the beautifully clear announcement PA system my first real-context occurrence of one of the rarest sounds in the languages of the world.

The sound is often described as a fricative trill, though I'm not at all sure that is a true description of what I heard from Czech speakers over my three days in Brno; I think I would describe what I was mostly hearing as a voiced apico-alveolar rhotacized fricative. But it may be a genuine fricative trill for some.

In the Czech writing system (which uses roman letters with diacritic marks) it is written with ‘ř’ (a lower-case r with a hachek on it). The IPA system of phonetic transcription characters uses [r] with the diacritic mark ̝ for raising (bringing the articulators closer together) underneath it (Wikipedia has an informative article on the sound, with a sound file link).

I haven't heard any other language that has exactly this sound as a separate phoneme. David Marjanović points out that it is said to be used by some northern and northeastern speakers of Kashubian in Poland (see this Wikipedia article). Kobon has an r-sound with variable amounts of friction, and Guy Tabachnick tells me that some varieties of Turkish do too, especially at the end of a word; but the crucial thing about Czech (and perhaps some dialects of Kashubian) is that its ř is distinct from the ordinary r-sound of words like Praha or Brno. Břeclav is not called *Breclav, and Brno is not called *Břno.

Coby Lubliner tells me that certain Central and South American varieties of Spanish have the usual distinction between r and rr, which is a tap vs. trill contrast in Spain, except that their rr is a rhotic fricative (or perhaps fricative trill) like Czech ř. If that's right, then Czech and Kashubian are not all alone out there.

My best shot at telling you in a non-technical way what the sound is like would be this: if you could say leisure and Lehrer in American English pronunciation at the same time, then if you got them both perfectly combined you would have something like the Czech ř at the point where the r is in Lehrer and the s is in leisure. If you could trill the r at the same time it would be close to the textbook description of the sound.

It's like an r in the special tongue shape, but also like the fricative [ʒ] that you hear at the end of French words like beige [beʒ] and rouge [ʁuʒ]. If you could say beige on and bay Ron simultaneously, especially if you could trill the r like a Scot or a Spaniard, you'd be saying ř before the on.

But don't imagine that saying any kind of [r] followed by the fricative [ʒ] would do as a workaround; Czech distinguishes those! The word ržát  ("neigh") does not have the same beginning as řáda  ("order")!

Why was it a thrill to hear a genuine ř in real life? I don't know. It just was. That's what being a linguist is like. If you saw an incredibly rare bird in the wild it would be just some bird unless you were an ornithologist or a twitcher, in which case it might be a real thrill.

I found myself pronouncing, quietly but aloud, each word I saw that had the sound. Poříčí (the street in which my hotel is located; č stands for the ch sound in each); hořčice (the word for "mustard" on the sachets in the breakfast room — unlike the shampoo sachet in my room, the mustard is labeled only in Czech and Slovak, and to say the word you have to produce ř immediately followed by č, not the easiest phonetic trick to master)…

So I wander about the streets of Brno mumbling words containing ‘ř’, possibly being taken for an insane person who not only hears voices but talks back to them. But I'm not insane. I'm just a linguist.

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