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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?

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    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, 2016 at 1:50
  • A fruitless discussion. Classical Latin was a language for the educated, perhaps less than 1/10000 of the population, scattered about an area of the Chinese empire. As Koine and Mandarin, it was a mean of communication between people, that couldn't understand their local dialects, especially in the military corps. A situation, that persisted e.g. in th German empire from Luther' creation of High German, until radio and TV equalized standard pronounciation for all classes between Saxonia, Bavaria, Allemania, and Frisia in the 1960ties.
    – Roland F
    Mar 6 at 10:26

2 Answers 2

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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, 2016 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, 2016 at 22:00
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    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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 13:19
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I would suggest that you could challenge the notion that rolling r in Latin is based on the fact that it is pronounced that way in other romance languages. Romance languages pronounce c and g as s a soft g in some instances, which is clearly not the case in Latin. If the pronunciation of those letters has been corrupted by local influences and uses in those languages, there's a pretty good case for the corruption of the pronunciation of r as well. The fact that it isn't rolled in English, which also has a strong Latin influence, might support this theory. Bringing ecclesiastical Latin into the argument doesn't hold either. That was spoken for many centuries and also exposed to local variances and influences. Priests were not born speaking Latin. Their first language influences any other language they learned thereafter. If it were rolled, then it would be more likely to have remained rolled in all communities in England as well, since they were fairly well isolated after the Romans left England. Each was influenced to a lesser or greater extent by those tribes that inhabited that region and the influence of any external raiding tribes. We know that English is a mishmash of many old languages. If the Romans had rolled the r, surely some parts of England would still do it? It seems improbable that they all lost it as English developed. Yes, it exists in Scotland but they were largely unaffected by Roman rule. As for the snarling of a dog, the way a dog snarls depends on what language you speak. In English, human versions of dog snarling don't sound like a rolling r, so we can't assume that a rolling r is what a Roman is hearing in a dog snarl either.

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  • Welcome to the site! It's fair to challenge the argument, but I have to point out that the other answer cites contemporary descriptions of the Roman R. A common feature in Romance languages points in the same direction.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 13 at 4:44