Erre Moscia: Dispelling Some Linguistic Myths and Legends

Dispelling Some Linguistic Myths and Legends

Iron work 'R' at Ca d'Zan, the Mediterranean Revival mansion of circus owner and art collector John Ringling and his wife Mable, Sarasota, Florida.
Iron work 'R' at Ca d'Zan, the Mediterranean Revival mansion of circus owner and art collector John Ringling and his wife Mable, Sarasota, Florida. Dennis K. Johnson / Getty Images

The bulk of our linguistic competency is learned at an early age—normally before we even show signs of having acquired this ability. We listen to pronunciations, intonations and cadences, and use it all to fashion our own way of speaking. As adults, we can watch this process taking place in young children learning to talk. What we don't usually observe is that we begin to form opinions about another person based solely upon the way he or she speaks. Accents define us in more ways than we care to admit. Usually these preconceptions remain subconscious, only revealed, for example, when we believe someone with a heavier accent less intelligent than ourselves. Other times, the notions are much closer to the surface.
One such highly debated presumption of Italian phonology centers on the misunderstood letter r which is typically pronounced as an alveolar trill in the front of the mouth. However, in some parts of Italy, notably Piedmont and other parts of the northwest near the French border, r is produced as a uvular sound in the back of the mouth. This is known as erre moscia or "soft r" and many Italians have crowned this unfortunate pronunciation wrong, going so far as to say that all those who speak with erre moscia are either snobby or have a speech impediment. Before making such assumptions about erre moscia, we must understand a few simple facts about its background.

The History of R

The letter r has a distinct history in many languages. In the phonetic table of consonants it hides under the label liquid or approximant, which are just fancy terms for letters halfway between consonants and vowels. In English, it is one of the last sounds to be developed, possibly because children aren't always certain what people are doing to produce the sound. Researcher and linguist Carol Espy-Wilson used an MRI to scan the vocal tract of Americans saying the letter r. In order to produce r, we must constrict our throats and lips, position our tongue and engage the vocal cords, all of which requires a lot of well-timed effort. She discovered that different speakers use different tongue positions, yet exhibit no change in the sound itself. When a person does produce a sound differing from normal r, that person is said to exhibit signs of rhotacism (rotacismo in Italian). Rhotacism, coined from the Greek letter rho for r, is an excessive use or peculiar pronunciation of r.

Why Piedmont?

The phrase "no man is an island" relates just as well to human languages as to human emotions. Despite the efforts of many language purists to prevent influences from other languages entering their own, there is no such thing as an isolated linguistic environment. Wherever two or more languages exist side-by-side, there is the possibility of language contact, which is the borrowing and intermingling of words, accents and grammatical structures. The northwest region of Italy, because of its shared border with France, is in a prime position for infusion and mixing with French. Many of Italy's dialects evolved similarly, each changing differently depending on the language with which it came into contact. As a result, they became almost mutually incomprehensible.

Once any alteration has taken place, it remains within the language and is passed from generation to generation. Linguist Peter W. Jusczyk has conducted research in the field of language acquisition. It is his theory that our capacity to perceive speech directly affects how we learn our native tongue. In his book "The Discovery of Spoken Language" Jusczyk examines a number of studies which demonstrate that from approximately six to eight months of age, infants can distinguish subtle differences in every language. By eight to ten months, they are already losing their universal ability to detect delicate phonetic differences in order to become specialists in their own language. By the time production begins, they are accustomed to certain sounds and will reproduce them in their own speech. It follows that if a child only hears erre moscia, that is how he will pronounce the letter r. While erre moscia occurs in other regions of Italy, those instances are considered deviations whereas in the northwest region erre moscia is perfectly normal.

It is no secret that r—at least in the beginning—is a very difficult sound to produce. It is one of the last sounds children learn to say correctly, and has proven a rather difficult hurdle for people trying to learn a foreign language who claim they cannot roll their r's. However, it is doubtful that people who speak with erre moscia have adopted that sound due to an inability to pronounce another kind of r. Speech therapists who work with children to correct a variety of impediments (not just for the letter r) say that they have never witnessed a case where a child substitutes a uvular r for another one. The idea doesn't make much sense because erre moscia is still a version of the letter (albeit not the popular one) and still requires complicated positioning of the tongue. More likely, a child will substitute the semivowel w sound which is close to the letter r and easier to pronounce, making them sound like Elmer Fudd when he shouted "Dat waskily wabbit!"

As for a snobbish affectation, there are certainly examples of wealthy, prominent Italians who speak with this accent. Actors who wish to depict an aristocrat from the 1800s are said to adopt erre moscia. There are even more recent examples of wealthy Italians who speak with erre moscia, such as the recently deceased Gianni Agnelli, industrialist and principle shareholder of Fiat. But it should not be ignored that Agnelli was from Turin, the capital city of the Piedmont region where erre moscia is part of the regional dialect.

Certainly the phenomenon of erre moscia in Italian speech is not the consequence of any one variable but rather a combination. Some people may choose to use erre moscia in an effort to seem more refined, though considering the stigma attached, it would seem to defeat the purpose. It doesn't appear to be a speech impediment because erre moscia is not any easier to produce than the normal Italian r. More likely it is the result of language contact with French and adoption as part of the native dialect. However there are still many questions surrounding this unusual sound and the debate will continue among speakers of Italian, both native and foreign.
About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.

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Milliman, Britten. "Erre Moscia: Dispelling Some Linguistic Myths and Legends." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Milliman, Britten. (2020, August 27). Erre Moscia: Dispelling Some Linguistic Myths and Legends. Retrieved from Milliman, Britten. "Erre Moscia: Dispelling Some Linguistic Myths and Legends." ThoughtCo. (accessed July 24, 2021).