Trilling as a sociolinguistic variable

Ethnicity and variation in the Hebrew dorsal fricatives


  • Roey J. Gafter Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Author



variation, language and ethnicity, Modern Hebrew, pharyngeals, trills, phonemic mergers


In the speech of many Hebrew speakers, the distinction between the voiceless pharyngeal fricative /?/ and its non-pharyngeal counterpart is neutralized, with the non-pharyngeal production becoming increasingly common. Although this is a well-studied phenomenon, little attention has been given so far to the possibility of meaningful variation in the non-pharyngeal forms. In this paper I demonstrate that the non-pharyngeal dorsal variant is not always a fricative, but rather, is often realized as a trill. Using data from sociolinguistic interviews conducted in two field sites in Israel, I show that the rate of trilling varies among speakers, and is sensitive to both social and linguistic factors. A key finding is that speakers who do not produce pharyngeals are more likely to produce the trill variant, but only in one of the two communities studied, in which the loss of the pharyngeals is considerably more advanced. While retention of the pharyngeals is strongly associated with Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African) descent, variation in trill rates interacts with ethnicity in complex ways, which shed light on the social and linguistic dynamics underlying the spread of the non-pharyngeal forms.

Author Biography

  • Roey J. Gafter, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

    Roey J. Gafter is a senior lecturer in the department of Hebrew Language at BenGurion University of the Negev, Israel. He is a sociolinguist whose work focuses on the use of linguistic resources in the construction of ethnic identities. His research explores sociophonetic variation in Hebrew, the Israeli construction of ethnic identity from a discourse analytic perspective, and contact between Hebrew and Arabic. He has published, inter alia, in the Journal of Sociolinguistics, Social Semiotics, and Linguistic Inquiry.


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How to Cite

Gafter, R. J. (2021). Trilling as a sociolinguistic variable: Ethnicity and variation in the Hebrew dorsal fricatives. Sociolinguistic Studies, 14(4), 483–503.