Rolling the 'R'

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Rolling the 'R'

(Screenshot via NBC Channel 12)

Instruction: To successfully make the R sound, curl the tongue upward without touching the top portion of the mouth. You should also curl the sides of the tongue upward so it is very close to the upper molars. In this position, make a roaring sound like a lion forcing air out of the nose and mouth at the same time.
—Talk English.com

While the entire world looks on with horror at the plight of those trying to flee the violence in countries throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, people in Phoenix, Arizona demonstrate that they, at least, maintain their perspective on foreigners and address issues that are of more concern than a refugee crisis in a far off place. It all came about because of the letter “R.”

The letter “R” in the English language is not a particularly distinguished letter. It is, of course, an integral part of the language, but when the letter “R” is part of a spoken word it is almost always of no auditory significance. It is not dwelt on by the speaker being almost always subsumed by the vowel that precedes it. In almost no context other than, perhaps, singing, can the letter “R” be heard as something lyrical. It is essential but undistinguished. By contrast, in some foreign languages such as German, French or Spanish, it is of great importance. In those languages and almost certainly others, the letter “R” enjoys a distinguished sound that it is given by rolling it off the tongue or by gutterally producing it in the throat. However produced, it is significant and in many case, bedevils those who grew up without the sound and when learning a foreign tongue, find it a particularly difficult letter to properly pronounce.

Phoenix has, of course, often found itself in the news because of its sheriff, Joe Arpaio. Joe is famous for his abuse of inmates, especially those of foreign birth who have the misfortune to come into contact with his law enforcement practices. Included among those practices is racial profiling when making arrests and forcing male inmates to wear pink underwear. He is also well known because of his refusal to obey orders issued to him by a Federal District Judge to quit racial profiling. Notwithstanding his notoriety and ongoing fights with federal courts over his behavior as sheriff, he has been elected six times to four-year terms as sheriff and continues to serve Phoenix as this is written. Thanks to a recent hire by Phoenix television station Channel 12, people living in Phoenix have a new, even more serious problem with which to concern themselves than the actions of Joe. The problem is posed by Vanessa Ruiz and the letter “R”.

Vanessa Ruiz is the new news anchor on Phoenix “12 News.” She joined the station in July 2015. During her more than 10 years as a news anchor she has been nominated for an Emmy and has worked in, among other places, Miami and Los Angeles. Vanessa grew up in a bilingual home and is fluent in English and Spanish. Being fluent, she knows how English words are pronounced and how Spanish words are pronounced. When she is delivering the news and encounters an English word she pronounces it just as her American listeners do. When she encounters a Spanish word, she pronounces it just as the illegal Mexican immigrants and the legal Spanish-speaking listeners in Arizona do. That is not the way many listeners in Phoenix like to hear their news and the disaffected have contacted Channel 12 demanding to know why Vanessa “rolled her Rs.”

Some of the comments that have been sent by listeners include such thoughtful observations, as “You are a news person Not a mariachi. Speak English.” Another commentator who is perhaps embarrassed to admit a lack of knowledge about foreign language pronunciation said: “How arrogant of you to think that we should accept the way you pronounce things. You are the outsider. What a load of crap.” Another observer demanded to know why she thought she was “better than those who only speak English.”

Until listeners made their feelings known there were probably not a lot of Phoenicians who knew that there was such a strident group organized to keep the letter “R” from being rolled. They (and we as well) can be grateful that there is such a strident group intent on preserving that poor letter’s lack of significance in the world of spoken English. There is something else for which they can be grateful. The problem they are having relates to the letter “R.” People elsewhere in the world would gladly trade places with them.

Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli is a columnist and lawyer known nationally for his work. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Colorado School of Law where he served on the Board of Editors of the Rocky Mountain Law Review. He can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com

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