With the letter R we come to the second sound in the Spanish alphabet that causes particular difficulties for native English speakers, the first being that pesky “ge” and “j” made in the throat.
As everyone who listens to Spanish knows, the R sound in Spanish is rolled, and you probably won’t be surprised that it is in fact the commonest consonant in the Spanish language. You might not realise though that there are two different “strengths” to the rolled R.
When a word begins with the letter R the roll is extra strong, and also when the R is doubled in the middle of a word. However, when you see the letter R written on its own in the middle or at the end of a word, then it is a lighter, shorter roll; more like a catching of the tongue at the top of the mouth. A good way to illustrate this is the difference in pronunciation between the word “perro” (dog) and “pero” (but). There is a clearly strong roll in the first word to distinguish it. However, as one of my forlorn students said one day, no wonder my dog takes no notice of me, I’ve been calling him “but”!
What do we do if we simply cannot make the rolled R sound at all? Well there are mouth exercises to improve this sound and I do know from personal experience that it can be cultivated over time. A Spanish speech therapist once told me that she gets children with this problem to run a toy car across the floor making an “rrrrrr” sound. If that isn’t quite your cup of tea then I can only recommend that as a last resort you simply replace the sound with our good old English R. You’ll sound very obviously English as a result, but the Spanish will recognise it as the same letter, fortunately. From the Spanish point of view, the pronunciation of the letter R is one of the big indicators of national origin!
I hope you’re ready to have a go at pronouncing that strong rolled R sound that comes at the beginning of these words, all of which are recognisably similar to their English equivalents. Whilst we’re talking about dogs, our first word is “raza” which means “breed” as well as “race”. Connected to this word of “racial” (racial) and “racist” (racist) are “radiador” (radiator), “radical” (radical), “radio” (radio), “rápido” (rapid, fast), “raro” (rare or strange), “registro” (register), “repetir” (repeat), “reptile” (reptile), “ridículo” (ridiculous).
As well as this abundance of similar words, there seem to be more than the usual amount of “estranged cousins” beginning with the letter R, so here are some of the more common ones: “rato” looks as though it might be a type of rodent, but in fact means “a while”, “a short spell”. “Regular” is one that people always enjoy when they start out learning Spanish. It means “below par”, “not very good” and can be used to describe ones physical state or any other thing that is not quite up to scratch. It has nothing to do with whether you had All Bran for breakfast! “Réplica” (reply/retort); “reunión” (meeting); “revolver” is a verb meaning “to stir” and “rubio” (blond) are more R words. A further example is the word “red” which means “net” as in fishing net, but also “network”. When you see signs for new roads or road extensions they usually contain the phrase “red de carreteras” (road network). The word “red” is also included in the name of one or two cash machine networks. Another misunderstanding has now been avoided. When the word comes up at the hole in the wall, it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you are in the red!
As you can see, the letter R is giving us an abundance of material, so here are a few more words R words which may be of general use and interest. The first of these is: “razón” which means “reason” in the English sense of “motive” or “argument”. However, we also talk in Spanish of “having reason” when we mean “to be right” or “to have right on ones’ side”. Therefore, if I wanted to say in an argument “I’m right!” I would say “Tengo razón” (I have reason). Likewise, I would concede someone else’s point with “tienes razón” (You’re right). You may have also noticed the word “razón” on signs advertising a flat rental, followed by a phone number or other contact details. In this case “razón” means “for further details …”.
The second useful and rather appealing R word is “recien” which is a truncated version of the adjective “reciente” (recent). This short form frequently appears before verb past participles eg: “recien casado” (newly wed/just married); “recien hecho” (newly made). This could refer to bread just out of the oven, for example; “recien llegado” (newly arrived/newcomer); “recien nacido” (newborn) and “recien puesto” (newly laid, as in eggs).
One final oddity is the word for a knitted cardigan which is usually “chaqueta de lana”, but can also be “rebeca”. I was once told, and have never since found any reason to disbelieve it, that the word comes from the film “Rebecca” in which the character appears throughout in several such garments. Please feel free to disagree with this or even watch the film and let me know if this is the case!
Finally, here is a nice cheerful saying containing an R word, and it’s one which my photocopy lady says on those occasions when she sees a certain look of horror on my face: “Todo tiene remedio, menos la muerte.” (Everything has a remedy, except death) – a saying which provides a sort of macabre cheeriness to help us get through the day.
Jane Cronin, Spanish Classes and Talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel 968183258