Why Spanish has two r sounds

In a previous post, I described the two r sounds of Spanish — the trill of carro and the flap of caro — and why linguists think r is interesting. How did Spanish end up with these two different flavors of r?

The spelling of carro and caro us a strong hint: Latin had both long and short r, along with long and short versions of other consonants. The difference between Latin carrus and carus wasn’t how the r sounds were made, but how long they were held. Spanish did away with the length difference but compensated by introducing the trill/flap difference.

This is consistent with a larger pattern: except for long mm versus short m, which simply merged, Spanish found a substitute for all of Latin’s consonant length contrasts. My favorite other example is Latin’s long nn, which turned into Spanish ñas in año “year” (from Latin annus).

Any changes to long consonants generally also applied to short consonants at the beginning of a word. This explains why words beginning with r (like real) are trilled, even though they had a short in Latin and are still spelled with a single r.

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