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Linking (and "intrusive") r             

We've looked at the allophones of r, and decided that in non-rhotic accents the phoneme /r/ is realised:
  • as unvoiced r when it occurs following p t or k at the beginning of a stressed syllable
  • as voiced r when it occurs with a vowel following it
  • as ZERO elsewhere (i.e. it DOESN'T OCCUR elsewhere !
  • By "zero" we mean that
    in non-rhotic accents of English, r only occurs prevocalically - it only occurs when a vowel follows it.
    This means the /r/ can disappear and crop up unexpectedly in RP and other non-rhotic varieties of English. For instance it's not there in 'hear me' but it is there in 'hear everything I say'. The sound r does not occur unless a vowel follows, so it does not occur at the end of the word 'hear' unless the next word begins with a vowel. This is called Linking r.

    It's not easy to account for this fact. Why, for instance, do speakers insert a linking r between the words 'hear everything' but not between the words 'see everything'? Simply because it's 'there in the spelling'? No, that can't be the answer, because children who can't spell, and who have no idea what the letter 'r' is or what it looks like, still add it after 'here' () but not after 'see' ().

    On top of this, it's clear that there doesn't have to be an 'r' in the spelling for it to be inserted in speech. Look at these sentences:

    Put the hammer in the box
    Put the comma/r/ in the sentence

    Carter always signs
    Cuba/r/ always signs

    The Czar often refuses
    The Sha/r/ often refuses

    Al Gore observes the law
    The law/r/ observes Al Gore

    fear - fear of it
    idea - idea/r/ of it

    star - starring
    cha-cha - cha-cha/r/ing

    pour - pouring
    draw - draw/r/ing

    When r is inserted in the pronunciation without justification from the spelling, it's known as 'Intrusive r' and it's often considered to be incorrect. But you will hear it everywhere in non-rhotic English - in fact there are very, very few speakers indeed who can manage to keep 'intrusive r' out of their speech without suppressing all their 'correct' linking r's a the same time.

    In order to account for this, we need to assume the following rule:

    Insert r between vowels if the first vowel is      or      or      or   

    R-Insertion Rule

    Linguists like to express these rules in concise, formal ways. One way of writing the r-insertion rule is like this:
    The first part of the formula means "zero becomes r", or in plain words "r is inserted". The second part, to the right of the slash /, means "when it occurs between one of and a following vowel".

    We can actually improve this formula in several ways. The vowels are all the non-high RP vowels that can appear in this position, so they could be represented by the single feature "[-high]". Another point is that this rule holds whether or not the insertion point is the end or the middle of a word - it occurs in "wander off" and"China/r/ also" between words, and in "wandering" and "cha-cha/r/ing". To capture these facts, we could write:

    where "#" means "word boundary" and the brackets mean that it is optional - so "(#)" means "whether or not there is a word boundary there".
    So the whole formula means "r is inserted after a non-high vowel when it is followed by any vowel, whether or not there is a word boundary between them".

    So now we know why children who can't spell insert r in prases like 'Here and there' and 'Far away' - and also in 'Peter and Diana-r are coming' .

    For further discussion, see on linking between vowels: j w r glides


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