Monday 14 January 2013

Fun and games with /r/

Well it's now January 2013 and I haven't posted anything since September 2012.  The good news is that my module "English in the World" starts again this term - tomorrow, in fact - so I should have more to say.

In the mean time, I thought you might enjoy my retelling of a conversation I had with a friend about intrusive and linking /r/.  She was complaining that someone on the television had pronounced the word "drawing" as /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/.  This is in fact the way I pronounce it (which doesn't mean it's necessarily right, I should hasten to add!).  The Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary gives /ˈdrɔː.ɪŋ/ as the "-ing" form of "draw" but notes in a box below that an intrusive /r/ is sometimes inserted.

My friend was horrified by this.  "It sounds terrible!" she wailed. We then had a discussion about value judgments and language but she wasn't convinced.

In fact, intrusive /r/ is an interesting one.  If you are a speaker of a rhotic accent - i.e., one in which you always pronounce "r" everywhere it appears in the spelling (e.g., General American; Irish; Scots) - then intrusive /r/ is just not something you do.  It's not there so you don't say it (although I note the box about "drawing" seemed to suggest that it even occurs in American English accents - would anyone like to comment?).

Intrusive /r/ comes about in non-rhotic accents by analogy with linking /r/.  Non-rhotic accents are those in which the speaker only pronounces /r/ if it is followed by a vowel (e.g., RP; Australian).  Linking /r/ is an optional connected speech process which happens in non-rhotic accents, such as RP, in rapid speech where there is an "r" in the spelling and the following word begins with a vowel.


  1. In "My car burns too much fuel these days", we do not pronounce the /r/ at the end of "car" in non-rhotic accents as the next word begins with a consonant - /maɪ ˈkɑː bɜːnz ˈtuː mʌtʃ ˈfjʊəl ðiːz deɪz/;
  2. In "My car always starts on cold mornings", we may very well pronounce the /r/ at the end of "car" as the following word begins with a vowel - /maɪ ˈkɑːr ɔːlweɪz ˈstɑːts ɒn kəʊld ˈmɔːnɪŋz/ (I've not added in any assimilation here but you might get them at the end of "on" and "cold") - but we wouldn't pronounce the "r" in "start" as it is followed by a consonant.
It is not necessary to perform linking /r/ in 2., but most speakers of e.g. RP will do it.

So, why does intrusive /r/ happen - i.e., why would a speaker pronounce "drawing" as /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/ when there is evidently no /r/ at the end of "draw"?

If you consider the words which can contain a linking /r/, these all have vowels in the non-high area of the vowel chart, all of which are spelled with "r" at the end of them.  See HERE for the IPA vowel chart and compare the position of the vowels (note these are English phonemes listed below and not Cardinal Vowels).  The vowels are as follows:
  • /ɑː/ - e.g., "car"
  • /ɜː/ - e.g., "cur"
  • /ɔː/ - e.g., "core"
  • /ɪə/ - e.g., "pier"
  • /eə/ - e.g., "pear"
  • /ʊə/ - e.g., "pure"
  • /ə/ - e.g., "mother" /ˈmʌðə/
In the case of /ɪə/, /eə/ and /ʊə/, these vowels are referred to as "centring" diphthongs as the tongue moves from the first vowel towards the second vowel which is a central one, /ə/.   NB. /ʊə/ is becoming rather low-frequency in modern RP and is often replaced with /ɔː/.

This doesn't mean you have to have an "r" in the spelling to have these vowels in a word, however, and this is where intrusive /r/ comes in.  For example:
  • In "I can see the pier over there", an RP speaker will most likely have a linking /r/ at the end of "pier" because the next word begins with a vowel - /ˈaɪ kən siː ðə ˈpɪər əʊvə ˈðeə/ (Quiz: There is no /r/ at the end of "over" and "there" - why not?)
  • In "The mere idea of it!", there is likely to be a linking /r/ at the end of "mere" but ALSO an intrusive /r/ at the end of "idea" - /ðə ˈmɪər aɪˈdɪər əv ɪt/ - because it contains one of the set of vowels in the list above.  This will sound very odd indeed to a speaker of a rhotic variety.
One must note, however, that linking and intrusive /r/ are both optional connected speech processes; they do not HAVE to happen.  For reasons of fluency, they often do.  My friend was saying that she would always put a glottal stop between "idea" and "of" in that last example; if I could hide behind her with a recording device to find out whether this is true in such instances, I would ... but of course this would be unethical.

In the Lingua Franca Core, Jenny Jenkins recommends always pronouncing "r" where it is found in the spelling, i.e., adopting a rhotic accent.  Personally, I can't think of many occasions in which my r-lessness or insertion of linking or intrusive /r/ has been a problem.  However, it's quite possible that I wouldn't have as, often being considered a role model for my particular accent, it is unlikely that I would ever have been challenged.  


  1. I remember hearing /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/ all the time in the audio guides at Hampton Court. Got me checking whether /ˈdrɔːɪŋ/ was actually correct since intrusive /r/ was produced in every single instance! (And there are plenty of drawing rooms there!)
    Thanks for the post, Jane!

  2. Linking and intrusive /r/ are certainly known in North America. Not all American English accents are rhotic, after all, and the non-rhotic ones have linking and intrusive /r/ just like their overseas cousins. The AAVE accent is an exception, as it has neither: for example, FORCE words like door and four are /foː/ and /doː/ respectively in all contexts. Some U.S. Southern accents similarly have /adiː/ idee in positions where intrusive /r/ would be expected.

    In addition, hyper-rhotic "idear" appears idiosyncratically among rhotic speakers as a lexical exception; its plural is "idears". Presumably this is a borrowing from accents with intrusive /r/. There is a story of a Midwestern child (rhotic) who moved to New York (non-rhotic) and asked his parents who this invisible giant was that he heard his new friends talking about. "What's his name?" said they. "/gɑrd/", said he, automatically rhoticizing the name for his parents' benefit.

    1. Would US Southern accents with /adiː/ actually have intrusive /r/ following it? How interesting. That would be the only one I know where it appears after a close vowel. Maybe the underlying schwa re-instates itself when a vowel follows.

      Cliff Richard (Britain's answer to Elvis in the 50s & 60s) famously put on a rhotic American accent and pronounces "tell your ma, tell your pa" as /tel yɔr mɑr | tel yɔr pɑr/ in "A Girl Like You"!

    2. Whoops - that should of course be /tel jɔr mɑr | tel jɔr pɑr/ (holds head in shame).

    3. I wasn't very clear there. What I meant was that in the word idea, the final schwa disappears rather than taking an intrusive /r/, so that the very idea of it has the allegro pronunciation /ðəˈvɛri.adˈi.əvɪt/ (note the characteristically Southern PRICE-smoothing). This may happen only when another schwa follows; I'm not sure.

    4. Note, by the way, that I don't write length marks in transcriptions of NAmE, since there is no phonemic distinction: a modified Scottish Vowel Length Rule determines them automatically. So the vowels of FLEECE and of happY are both /i/, or else (for in some older Southerners like /ˈdʒɪmɪ ˈkɑtə/) happY is /ɪ/; in any case, /i/ is not a neutral symbol.

    5. We had a long discussion about whether to leave in or remove the length marks for the AmE ("Network English") prons in EPD. We left them in ultimately but I know they are not usually used in AmE.

  3. To the non-native speakers of English like me, the quality of the intrusive and linking /r/ seems to be quite varied. I think I have heard trilled r, flap r, fricative r, almost frictionless r, uvular r,,,,especially when I am in London. As you know, the variety of r is incredibly great if you observe many languages. Could this aspect be incorporated to the analyses of the linking and intrusive /r/ especially when English is globalized? Tadao

    1. What a lot of variation! I don't think I've ever heard a trill or a uvular sandhi /r/. I'll have to listen more closely!

  4. I'm English living in Canada. I do hear the intrusive /r/ here.

    I have also noticed an oddity here with people who have a speech impediment that causes them to use /w/ instead of /r/. Rabbit is pronounced /ˈwæb ɪt/ for example, as you might expect. But when they are faced with a word ending in /r/, instead of simply pronouncing it non-rhotically, as I would, they still try to include the /w/. Which is not easy at the end of a word, frankly. Bear becomes something like /bɛəwu/.

    So, I was listening (possibly obsessively) to one such afflicted, trying to hear if she used an instrusive /w/. YES! It's there but only just. You would miss it if you were not listening for it.

  5. How interesting! Sounds like a possible research study ...

  6. I just come back from Korea after a week holiday.

    In Scotland, I have heard trilled r by local people. I am not very sure whether they were sandhi r or not. In London, we can hear all kinds of world Englishes in the tourist pubs. Uvular r is not rare by some Europeans when their languages have uvular r. Some Chinese seem to use a little fricative r because their r is strongly fricative. I guess when they want to use a sandhi r, they tend to use the same type of r.

    By the way, we have some historical Japanese sandhi cases-fricative s insertion.e.g.,haru(spring)+ame(rain)=harusame, aki(autumn)+ame(rain)=akisame. Maybe, you heard them when you were in Japan.Tadao

  7. I remember that when I taught English in South Korea, my British non-rhotic pronunciation seemed to impede students' recognition of certain words in dictation exercises ('car' comes to mind).

    I don't think this was because they were more used to NAm accents, as they were (very) young learners. Perhaps their training in phonics led them to expect something after the vowel.

    Jennifer Jenkins may well have a point about the desirability of pronouncing 'r' when found in the spelling, but I agree that it's probably not a major issue in international intelligibility.

    1. It's a difficult one to judge, isn't it? When you're a NS, I mean. That's why research not involving NSs is so valuable here.

  8. Not sure it quite counts as intrusive /r/ by traditional definitions, but my fifth grade teacher used to pronounce "wash" as "warsh" (and other things similarly, though for some reason I particularly remember this example). Maybe it's a Pennsylvania thing... though I've never heard it from anyone else!

    In terms of the LFC, I've often wondered about teaching the pronunciation of /r/ when found in spelling. I tend to model both pronunciations for my students where possible (I'm fine with isolated words, though putting on a British accent for fluent connected speech might be a bit beyond me!) and have noticed that they almost invariably continue to pronounce the version with /r/.

    In any case, I believe Jenkins's research just suggested that, in the particular dataset that she gathered, intelligibility was aided by pronunciation of /r/ where it occurs in spelling--but she did say more data was (yes, yes, "were"- but I've never liked the sound of that) needed. For my part, just anecdotally, I've noticed that my students seem to understand each other better when /r/ is pronounced. Pronouncing "car" as /kɑː/, for example, would probably cause a furrowed brow until common sense and context came to the rescue.

    Love the blog, by the way!

    1. Thanks, Laura! It's an occasional blog ...