The dog’s letter
It is a long time since I had to learn the alphabet. There are two aspects to, recognising the shape of the letter, usually by having a mnemonic consisting of a word that begins with said letter such as a for apple, b for bee and so on, and the sound of it using some form of phonic tag. The letter r is normally sounded in English as if it was spelt like ruh, but a more dramatic and spittle-laden (and Covid-19 unfriendly) way of pronouncing is to roll it with the tongue. In some languages, the Spanish word for a dog, perro, is a good example, the letter r is formed by rolling the tongue and making a more nasal sound.
The Roman satirist, Persius, in his first Satire, when lambasting his fellow satirists, noted the propensity for the letter r to sound like the growl of a dog; “sonat hic de nare canina/ littera” (1.109 – 110), translated as “here there is the nasal sound of the canine letter”. Some of the texts of Persius survived the cull of Pagan literature by the early Christians, the depredations of vermin, moths, bookworms and the like, to reach the sunny uplands of the Renaissance. In the developing phonetics for the printing industry, his observations on the resemblance of the pronunciation of the letter r with the growl of a dog took hold.
The French printer and librarian, Geoffroy Tory, compiled a treatise in typography, published in 1526. When he reached the letter r in the alphabet, he called it “lettre Canine”, citing Persius as his source. A century later Ben Johnson gave a detailed explanation in The English Grammar, published in the year of his death, 1637, of the letter r. “R” he wrote, “is the Dogs Letter, and hurreth in the sound; the tongue striking the inner palate, with a trembling about the teeth. It is sounded firme in the beginning of the words; and more liquid in the middle, and ends: as in rarer, riper. And so in the Latine”.
The association of the letter with a dog was certainly current in the 16th century. Alexander Barclay, a poet and clergyman, wrote in his The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde, published in 1506, that “this malicious man who is troubled with wrath/ sounds nothing else but the hoarse letter R/ though all be well, yet he has no answer/ save the dog’s letter”. Shakespeare got into the act in Act 2, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet when the nurse says, “doth not Rosemarie and Romeo begin both with a letter…Ah, mocker, that’s the dog’s name”. Not a direct usage, for sure, but his audience would surely have picked up this well-signposted but indirect reference to the dog’s letter.
By the 19th century, though, it was consigned to obscurity, the plaything of critics who wanted to display their erudition. Reviewing Satan, a collection of poems by a Mr R Montgomery, a correspondent in the Westminster Review of April 1830 wrote, “we are somewhat startled by these three words on the next page, To My Friend. As there is only the difference of the dog’s letter between friend and the quality of the subject, we looked to the Errata, thinking it probable there was a misprint of fiend”. Of course, misprint there was none.
Perhaps the dog’s letter is overdue a renaissance.