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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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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.

  • 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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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.

  • 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 '14 at 11:26
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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 suspect two factors: (1) pre-microphones. Singers back then had to sing loud to be heard. Rolling your Rs like Piaf carries the sound much further than the modern R. (2) opera/operetta. These were far more popular than now, and their Italian sounds and themes may have influenced the performance of mainstream music.

I doubt it has anything to do with Piaf's personal background, as almost all French singers sang like that regardless where they came from.

Edit: just noticed someone above me mentioned microphones already, oops.

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La prononciation du R a, en français, été sujette à des influences socio-politiques.

  • Le R français est, à l'origine très fortement roulé mais uniquement avec la langue. Lire son excellente description par Molière dans le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Cette prononciation qui est celle de l'espagnol mais aussi de l'italien et du portugais est aussi dite apicale.

  • Vers la fin du XVIIe, à la cour de France, on va arrêter de prononcer ce R " jusqu'à écorcher les oreilles". On va arrêter de le rouler donc en reportant la vibration sur la luette (d'où son nom de uvulaire.) Les linguistes d'alors condamnent cette prononciation fautive en forgeant le terme de Grasseyer. Voltaire condamne aussi cette mode "urbaine".

  • Le snobisme urbain et mondain va même entraîner la mode de... ne plus prononcer le R du tout. Voir la mode lancée par les Inc'oyables et des Me'veilleuses après l'épisode de la Terreur.

  • "Notre" R standard actuel est encore différent. Il se développe à partir du début du XIXe. On ne fait plus intervenir la luette. Il ne s'agit plus que d'un frottement entre le dos de la langue et le voile du palais d'où son nom de dorso-vélaire. C'est alors que le mythe lié aux prononciations précédentes naît. On se met à les associer à l'authenticité, à la prononciation ancestrale, rurale et paysanne. Elles seraient garantes d'un parler "vrai" en opposition à la prononciation dorso-vélaire nouveauté propre aux intellectuels parisiens.

C'est donc ces anciennes prononciations que cherchent à reprendre les artistes populaires, Piaf évidemment mais on pourrait aussi citer Mireille Mathieu.

Mais... à vrai dire... on ne sait plus vraiment comment les reproduire ces anciennes prononciations... alors... au lieu de l'apical on... prolonge la durée du dorso-vélaire. C'est cette prolongation qui donne une impression de roulement. Ecouter Rataplan par Bartoli

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