At a recent audition where accents were requested, I got to thinking about this little letter. How is it that this one little letter gets to be so special? It takes a different sound in pretty much every language I know (or with which I am familiar).
Neither Spanish "r" sound is like the English "r" - and even within the English "r" there's a difference between the American "r" and the British "r" (the Spanish "r's" are still like neither one).
The American "r" seems to be preceded by a "w," especially at the beginning of words (which, I guess, is why we have words like "write" and "wreck," that have that silent leading "w"). The British "r" is too snooty to be there, they just gloss over it, except when it's not there - then they add it. Why? Nobody knows. They're British, they think they own the language and can do whatever they want with it.
The Spanish "r" is not as complicated as English-speakers like to make it out to be, really. It's just a simple flap of the tongue to the roof of the mouth - the single "r" is the same sound made by the double "t" in "Betty." See how easy that is? Now do it at super-speed, seventeen times in a row - then you have the double "r" sound!
The French "r" (which I needed for said audition) comes from the back of the throat, and requires phlegm or spit, whichever you have handy. As long as you keep your lips pursed in a seductive "o" shape - you know, like you just took your cigarette out of your mouth - you have the French sounds.
The German "r" (another accent at the audition, even though not for the girls, none of us were trying out for Einstein) is similar to the French "r," but angrier. It's German, it has to be angry.
Then there's the Chinese* "r," which is entirely wacky altogether. As a child, I was greatly confused by jokes with Chinese characters (which now, as an adult, I know are racist and in poor taste, but when I was 10 I didn't really know so forgive me) - you see, the jokes I had heard as a child (in Chile) portrayed the Chinese characters using the "l" sound for the letter "r." However, when I moved to the US, the Chinese characters in jokes used the "r" sound for the letter "l." I didn't get it - I thought they couldn't say the "r" sound, but now you're telling me not only that yes, they can say the "r" sound, but that they used that sound instead of "r"? What the flip?
Years later, the answer to this conundrum finally came to me, in the enlightening years of college. Discussing phonemes that are present in one language and not another, the teacher mentioned that the Chinese character for the letters we call "r" and "l" are the same, but the sound will vary depending on if the sound is at the beginning or end of the syllable - at the beginning of the syllable, the sound was what we call "r," at the end of the syllable it was the sound we call "l" (or the other way around, I can't remember). Therefore, Chinese students had a hard time putting the "r" phoneme at the beginning of a syllable, and the "l" phoneme at the end of syllable (or the other way around, I can't remember. It was a long time ago!) If you think about it, the position of the tongue for both letters (in English) is very similar, almost the same, so this makes more sense than it sounds like it would.
So this is why sometimes Chinese people were portrayed as not being able to make the "r" sound, and other times not being able to make the "l" sound! Their language has both phonemes, they can pronounce both sounds, but not in the places where English (or Spanish) puts them...
You do not understand how relieved I was to find this out. The discrepancy had, truly, bothered me for years. Why? I don't know. Maybe because some of the jokes I'd heard wouldn't work if the other sound were substituted... and part of me was going to feel cheated. Alas, all that fretting was for naught.
I'd share one of those jokes with you, but a) the only one I can remember is in Spanish, and b) it's probably going to be offensive to someone and I'd rather not infuse this blog with negative karma.
*Author's note: as read in the post, my experience with this phonological phenomenon is rather limited, mainly to jokes and the one time it was mentioned in that linguistics class, many, many semesters ago. If I have the wrong language (if it's really Japanese that does that, or if both languages do it) please pardon my ignorance and leave me a comment correcting me - or send me an angry email correcting me. Thank you.