The burr thrives as Norwegian dialects dwindle
M. Michael Brady
All 20-some dialects of Norwegian are dwindling in the face of increasing mobility and ever more pervasive electronic media. But recent phonemic research points to at least one counter trend. The burr, a distinctive uvular articulation of the letter R, also called a guttural R, is spreading.
In the Middle Ages, the Norwegian burr, called skarringen, had a close relative. Across the North Sea in Northumberland, the burr was part of the everyday spoken language. In the early 18th century, writer Daniel Defoe, most famed for Robinson Crusoe, decried the “hollow Jarring in the Throat… of the Northumberland R” in a series of essays entitled A Tour Thro’ The Whole Island of Great Britain. But the Northumberland burr is no more, as it has disappeared from the dialects of northeast England.
That the burr thrives in contemporary Norwegian suggests that it arrived in a more regular linguistic migration than via sporadic Viking voyages. In French, grasseyer (the verb for uvular trilling) is believed to have originated in the 17th century in Paris. At the time, Parisian French was much spoken by the urban upper classes across Western Europe, so the French burr traveled in many directions, including northward to Copenhagen, where it was first heard around 1780. How it spread from there is unknown, but it’s still in some French dialectal articulation, as of rendezvous.
The Norwegian burr was first heard on the southern and southwestern coasts, in Arendal, Kristiansand, Stavanger, and Bergen, where it became the norm in the everyday speech of residents born around 1900. Seventy years on, it had spread to the surrounding rural areas and moved inland.
University of Oslo Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Arne Torp predicts that the next generation will take the burr farther northward to make it the dominant articulation of western Norway. But he also speculates that the spread may slow in the face of the opposing retroflexion that tends to merge consonants. If so, the Norwegian burr may never be as prevalent as the French or Danish varieties.
Even so, the Norwegian burr now has the distinction of having been heard at Cabinet level. Two Ministers of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s second cabinet spoke with a burr: Minister of Culture Hadia Tajik, born and raised in Rogaland County on the southwest coast, and Minister of Labor Anniken Huitfeldt, who lived in Rogaland until she was six years old. As they now reside and work in the greater Oslo area, where the alveolar trill, or “rolled R” is the norm, both parliamentarians report being suspected of having a speech defect. If so, Tajik observes, “it’s a most beautiful speech defect.”
This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.