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I've been listening to a couple CDs that include Edith Piaf. Sometimes she rolls or trills her "R"s like in Spanish. Is this customary, local usage, artistic license or?

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If I remember correctly, she didn't do “like in Spanish” trills [r] which are on the tip of the tongue, but rather [R] which are on the back of the tongue. –  Evpok Sep 19 '13 at 9:44
    
Your ear is better than mine. –  mnemotronic Sep 19 '13 at 23:07
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3 Answers

I remember a broadcast of la prochaine fois je vous le chanterai where they explained that when rolled/trilled R usage was decreasing, singers kept using them as it allowed them to project more power. Then mikes and amps decreased the importance of that aspect.

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Ahh. That definitely could explain it. The advent of the microphone and amplification really changed things. Bing Crosby really understood amplification and how it could allow him to concentrate on style rather than sheer volume. –  mnemotronic Oct 6 '13 at 2:39
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The language sounds surrounding the letter r dictate it's sound to some degree. For example the letter r next to ou in rouge sounds different to the letter r in voir.

Try this Advanced R guide for more details

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I think @Evpok is right in that you must differentiate between "spanish" R's rolled with the tip of the tongue and ones where the rolling happens at the back of the tongue.

As far as I can tell, Piaf used the latter to put emphasis and solemnty to her words (as in "je ne rrregrette rrrien"), but rarely the former.

"Back of tongue" rolled R's sound mostly artistic and stylized to me. I've never heard them used in everyday conversation, I guess because they would not only be pedantic but also awfully inconvenient to pronounce and unfluid.

As far as metropolitan France is concerned, "Spanish" rolled/trilled R's in contrast are not uncommon in some regions, mostly among the pre-baby boom generation. This pronunciation likely originates in local patois that were widely spoken in most of rural France before WWII, among which occitan dialects but also other dialects in the center and northern part of the country such as Berrichon.

As a side note, you may have other regional variations of R's. Many natives of the Basque country for instance (not only older generations but youths as well) tend to have more stressed, rough and guttural R's than the average.

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The fact the trilled [r] is indeed now associated with old/rural "rednecks" is the reason it is doomed. Corsica is also a region where that [r] used to be the standard but it is fading there too. –  jlliagre Mar 25 at 11:26
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