I will today describe for you what is probably one of the more frustrating obstacles to language acquisition I’ve encountered in recent memory. It goes by the deceptively innocuous name alveolar trill. Oh, trilly, trallah, it’s the alveolar trill! No, no! There’s nothing happy and innocent about this sound!
‘Cross the decadent hill
blows a wind harsh and chill
Oh there’s no sense of thrill
Its blood will I spill–
I just want to kill–
I don’t know how I will–
This alveolar trill!
If a phoneme drives me to poetry you know something’s wrong. Alright then, more soberly:
The alveolar trill is a sound, not uncommon in Indo-European languages. It’s produced (so I’m told) by vibrations of the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge–this is the part of the top of your mouth right behind your teeth. Now, I’ve encountered this sound before: it exists in Russian, and some dialects of Portuguese, German, and Yiddish. Hell, it exists in English–Scottish English, that is. But in all these cases another sound can be substituted. In Portuguese, German, and Yiddish, it’s not present in the standard dialect or the one I wanted to learn, and in Russian you can always switch it for a tap (like ‘tt’ in “butter”). But now, after navigating successfully through seven languages without a hitch (of the alveolar sort), I’m confronted with Spanish.
Spanish, of which I’ve been told on numerous occasions, “Oh, Spanish! That’ll be so easy for you after all those other languages!”, “Hoho, Spanish is so easy!”, “HOHOHAHAHAHAHA!”. They laugh at me, they mock me! For not only is the Trill present in the vast majority of Spanish dialects, but I can’t just use the tap instead because they’re two distinct $%@!&#”$%@ phonemes! That means that there are words with the Trill that, if I use the tap instead, mean something completely different. For instance:
pero (with a tap) means “but”. So far, so good. But then,
perro (pronounced peRRRRRRRRRRRRRo with your tongue flailing wildly in all sorts of unholy directions) means “dog”.
I know what I’m supposed to do, but I can’t make that noise! The mind is willing but the tongue is weak. It does not know how to dance oh so sinfully, licentiously, cunningly. Why will my tongue not take part in this ritual? Does it think of Cortés, in whose mouth the trill helped bring a civilization to ruin? Or of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who used it to afflict our people? Does it not know that this powerful weapon can also bring peace and harmony to the world? Does the Trill not begin words such as rezar, regalo, and risa? But the fleshy lithe muscle attached to the floor of my mouth does not listen. It does not perform. It cannot. It will not. But it must!