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During my Latin education (using classical pronunciation), I was taught that 'r' should be 'rolled', making a sort of growling sound.

For example, the r's (more the second than the first set) in errāre would be rolled.

What is the historical significance of this? What evidence is there that Romans pronounced the letter this way?

  • 3
    This is just a guess, but regarding the evidence portion: Rolling "r"s is common in Romance languages, which can be traced back to Latin. It would make sense that there is a common tradition there. – HDE 226868 Feb 24 '16 at 1:50
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This paper talks about several primary sources (i.e. Roman texts) that describe rolling Rs:

  • Terentianus Maurus writes in De litteris that

    vibrat tremulis ictibus aridum sonorem
    the R vibrates with a dry sound from trembling blows

  • Martianus Capella writes

    R spiritum lingua crispante corraditur
    [R] is pronounced with difficulty (?), with the tongue vibrating the air

    Capella's writing contradicts itself on this count in another place, leaving this testimony in doubt.

  • Lucilius writes, more colorfully,1

    r: irritata canis quam homo quam planius dictat
    which (i.e. the sound r) an irritated bitch pronounces more clearly than a man

    This is supposed to imply a growling similar to the modern instruction or R-rolling.

Taken as a group, these sources would seem to indicate that the Romans did roll some of their Rs. However, other authors, including Varro, Charisius, Marius Victorinus, and Martianus Capella (referring to his contradictory account), describe more fluid pronunciations. What this implies above all else is that pronunciations may have differed among different groups and in different time periods, hence the different accounts.

Indirect evidence for R-rolling comes from the Romance languages, where this is quite common. In Spanish, for example, rr indicates this rolling (rather than simply r). The presence of rolling in these languages suggests a common origin, likely in Latin.


1 The above translations are given by the author of the paper, and are not necessarily word-for-word. For example, brianpck suggested translating Lucilius differently, as "An irritated bitch which a man pronounces as clearly as possible."

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    Not to be pedantic, but the second translation of Lucilius is a bit off. I would translate: "An irritated bitch which a man pronounces as clearly as possible." – brianpck Feb 24 '16 at 14:15
  • @brianpck I had stuck with the author's translations, which are not as literal. I've kept the last one as-is, but I've added a note containing your translation. – HDE 226868 Feb 24 '16 at 22:00
  • Thanks for the note! As an aside, I was actually being a little too kind (because I thought you translated!), because the translation in question is actually dead wrong: the first "quam" is a relative pronoun ("which"), not a conjunction ("than") and the second use of quam ("quam + comparative adverb) is an idiomatic expression that means "as X as possible" – brianpck Feb 25 '16 at 13:36
  • @brianpck Actually you're wrong – even if grammatically it could be possible, your translation doesn't make sense semantically. The first quam is a comparative conjunction, without any doubts; the second is most probably a relative pronoun referred to "r". – user786 Sep 1 '16 at 9:25
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    @mus_siluanus I looked at it again and agree with you: I wasn't aware of the poetic nature of this piece, which justifies the strange word order of placing the relative pronoun in such a strange spot. FWIW, my translation wasn't availing itself of this secondary meaning: in a context like this a bitch can be understood as a...female dog. – brianpck Sep 1 '16 at 13:19

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