Thanks to the global meltdown perpetrated by Wall Street villains in pursuit of world domination, James Bond’s return has been delayed. But at least we now have Daniel Craig in the anglophone remake of Män som hatar kvinnor, aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
To me, the most distinctive thing about Craig’s speech has always been his bunched-tongue r-sound. Articulatory descriptions of standard English r, or [ɹ], involve the curling of the tongue tip up towards the alveolar ridge or to a point further back. But Craig’s r has a clearer resonance consistent with a bunching of the tongue body and a diminished role for the tongue tip. This bunched r (or “molar” r, as some call it) is more similar to a palatal approximant [j] than is the curled [ɹ].
Whether Bond’s enemies could use this tell-tale feature to pinpoint the world’s least secret agent, I don’t know. I think it’s quite rare in standard BrE, where labial articulations are the most common alternative to the standard apical/postalveolar [ɹ]. The most frequent references to bunched r seem to be in connection with General American’s rhotic NURSE-vowel, which is bunched for many but not all speakers.
Googling “bunched r”, I was led to this post on John Wells’ phonetic blog, a post which I hadn’t previously read and which I found somewhat curious. The surprise wasn’t in John’s description of his own r-sound as bunched/molar, but in his further comments:
The strange thing is that it doesn’t sound any different from the postalveolar r sounds that other people use… In my experience, when someone has claimed that there is an audible difference between the molar and the postalveolar kinds, I find that there is also some kind of difference in secondary articulations (pharyngalization, labialization etc), but no audible difference when this is stripped out. That’s why I have some sympathy with the argument that if we can’t hear the difference we don’t need a special IPA symbol for the molar r… Can people actually hear a difference based purely on place of articulation?
For me this unexpectedly brought things full-circle, as the first time I ever noticed a bunched/molar r was while listening to John as an undergraduate student of his at UCL. I didn’t yet have the bunched/molar terminology at my disposal but, whenever John said the name of a classmate Chris, I could hear that it contained a (labiodentalized) tongue-body affricate of some kind. My “John Wells impression” – never performed for anyone’s benefit but my own – has always consisted entirely of the one syllable Chris pronounced in this manner.
And when I first encountered Daniel Craig on the 1996 TV saga Our Friends in the North, I was struck both by his screen presence and by the fact that he had that same bunched r thing as John Wells. Craig’s character, a Tynesider, referred repeatedly to his boss Mr. Barrett:
So it’s been my assumption that curled and bunched/molar r-sounds are audibly different; or rather, that there’s a continuum between the two which is audible, proprioceptively tangible, and visible on spectrograms. This is me making a series of r-sounds between [a] vowels, starting with retroflex, then becoming less curled and more bunched; and I end with the palatal [j]:
The r-sounds all involve the well-known drop in the third formant, F3, towards the second formant, F2 (the formants are the bands picked out by red dots, numbered at any given point in time from the bottom upwards). The more curled, the lower the meeting-point of F3 and F2; the more bunched, the higher the meeting-point. I would place the r-sounds of Daniel Craig and John Wells roughly between the third and fourth examples; with the formant values of my speech, that would be a meeting-point around 1700 Hz, at least for this vowel context. A few measurements of Craig’s speech suggest that his manly formants are a bit lower than mine. Here’s his Bond:
And his Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:
I’m sure John Wells has a better phonetic ear than I, so I’m curious that he considers bunched and curled to be more or less indistinguishable. No doubt many r-sounds hover indeterminately around the middle of my continuum, but not all. The famous old New York NURSE-vowel with a palatal offglide (stereotyped in spellings like “doity boid” for dirty bird) surely developed from a bunched rhotic vowel that was near the palatal end of my continuum, i.e. with a high meeting-point for F2 and F3. Older Hollywood movies often feature speakers with this kind of vowel:
The r-sounds of many Caribbean speakers also strike me as relatively bunched or clear. I’m not sure if it’s a feature of Multicultural London English, but I’ll listen out.
I wonder if there could be some link between John’s perception that his r “doesn’t sound any different from the postalveolar r sounds that other people use” and the fact that he acquired a bunched r as an infant in a predominantly curled-r world? On the other hand, there’s the possibility that John’s early environment was not so curly after all. He’s from Lancashire, and I certainly hear the rhotic r of some Lancastrians as relatively bunched, i.e. clear in contrast to their dark l. Here’s the fictional Fred Elliott from the TV soap Coronation Street: