Generations of Americans have puzzled over the British tendency to add ‘r’s where (it seems to us) ‘r’s don’t belong. This can be found in such phrases as “an idear of it,” “pastar and sauce,” and ”sawr and conquered.” Termed r insertion (or intrusive r), this feature impacts many non-rhotic (r-less) accents. And as we’ll discuss shortly, the phenomena has given birth to an even more unusual feature, which might be termed the hypercorrective intrusive r.
R insertion, as strange as it sounds to us r-pronouncers, is in fact guided by simple, logical rules. For someone from London, the r pronounced in “bitter end” is no different from the r pronounced in “pastar and sauce.” Both follow the rule that when a schwa occurs at the end of a word, and the next word begins with a vowel, r makes an appearance*. This is also true of /ɑ:/ words (the “Shahr of Iran” follows the same rule as “car and driver”) and /ɔ:/ words (“Drawr open” is treated no differently than “Drawer open”).
Really, then, for people with r-inserting accents there is no r after vowels, even if an r appears in the spelling. Rather, there is a set of rules that dictates that /r/ appears in between vowels in certain environments.
Anyway, this brings us to the point of today’s post, the related phenomenon of hypercorrective intrusive r. This is a largely American peculiarity whereby someone with a traditionally non-rhotic accent (as found in New York City and New England) hypercorrects and pronounces r regardless of whether it precedes a vowel. Hence we get “I’ve got no idear what to wear!” and “He liked to drawr cats.”
I’m under the impression that the hypercorrective intrusive r is on the wane. At the risk of stereotyping, I’ve mostly heard it among speakers over fifty from Long Island or working-class areas around Greater Boston. It strikes me as a by-product of the dialect levelling that occurred in America after World War II, and hence a temporary product of that transition.
Mysterious to me, though, is why this levelling only seems to have produced the intrusive r phenomenon in the Northern U.S. The American South, after all, has several non-rhotic accents that drop their r’s more extremely than New Yorkers or Bostonians. In older Southern dialects, all r’s are dropped after vowels, in positions like that of “very” ([ve.i]) and “better off” ([beɾə ɔf]). In essence, there never was a linking r in those accents.
Still, as non-rhoticity has receded in the South, hypercorrective intrusive r doesn’t seem to have occurred**. The region adopted rhotic accents with a fairly effortless transition. The same is true of African American Vernacular English. Many AAVE speakers have transitioned to rhoticity, and yet I’ve never met an AAVE speaker who exhibits any type of intrusive r.
Why does this feature only impact certain types of accents?
*Well, really, it’s before a morpheme boundary: hence “drawring.”
**At least I don’t think it has: feel free to correct this assertion if there have indeed been Southern r-inserters.
Linking R and intrusive R are sandhi or linking phenomena involving the appearance of the rhotic consonant (which normally corresponds to the letter ⟨r⟩) between two consecutive morphemes where it would not normally be pronounced. These phenomena occur in many non-rhotic dialects of English, such as those in most of England, Wales and the southern hemisphere. These phenomena first appeared in English sometime after the year 1700.
By definition, non-rhotic varieties of English only pronounce /r/ when it immediately precedes a vowel. This is called r-vocalisation, r-loss, r-deletion, r-dropping, r-lessness, or non-rhoticity. For example, in non-rhotic varieties of English, the sound /r/ does not occur in a word such as tuner when it is spoken in isolation, before an intonation break (in pausa), or before a word beginning with a consonant. Even though the word is spelled with an ⟨r⟩ (which reflects that an /r/ was pronounced in the past), non-rhotic accents do not pronounce an /r/ when there is no vowel sound to follow it. Thus, in isolation, speakers of non-rhotic accents pronounce the words tuner and tuna identically as [ˈtjuːnə]. In contrast, speakers of rhotic dialects, such as those of Scotland, Ireland and most of North America, always pronounce an /r/ in tuner and never in tuna so that the two always sound distinct, even when pronounced in isolation. Hints of non-rhoticity go back as early as the 15th century, and the feature was common (at least in London) by the early 18th century.
In many non-rhotic accents, words historically ending in /r/ (as evidenced by an ⟨r⟩ in the spelling) may be pronounced with [r] when they are closely followed by another morpheme beginning with a vowel sound. So tuner amp may be pronounced [ˈtjuːnər æmp]. This is the case even though tuner would not otherwise be pronounced with an [r]. Here, “closely” means the following word must be in the same prosodic unit (that is, not separated by a pausa). This phenomenon is known as linking R. Not all non-rhotic varieties feature linking R. A notable non-rhotic accent that does not have linking R is Southern American English.
The phenomenon of intrusive R is an overgeneralizing reinterpretation of linking R into an r-insertion rule that affects any word that ends in the non-high vowels /ə/, /ɪə/, /ɑː/, or /ɔː/; when such a word is closely followed by another word beginning in a vowel sound, an [r] is inserted between them, even when no final /r/ was historically present. For example, the phrase tuna oil would be pronounced [ˈtjuːnər ɔɪl]. The [r] is inserted epenthetically to prevent two consecutive vowel sounds. Other recognizable examples are the Beatles singing: “I saw-r-a film today, oh boy” in the song “A Day in the Life“, from their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, at the Sanctus in the Catholic Mass: “Hosanna-r-in the highest” and in the phrases, “Law-r-and order” band “Victoria-r-and Albert Museum”. This is now common enough in parts of England that, by 1997, the linguist John C. Wells considered it objectively part of Received Pronunciation, though he noted that it was still stigmatized as an incorrect pronunciation, as it is or was in some other standardized non-rhotic accents. Wells writes that, at least in RP, “linking /r/ and intrusive /r/ are distinct only historically and orthographically“.
Just like linking R, intrusive R may also occur between a root morpheme and certain suffixes, such as draw(r)ing, withdraw(r)al or Kafka(r)esque.
Rhotic dialects do not feature intrusive R. A rhotic speaker may use alternative strategies such as a hiatus between the two consecutive vowel sounds, or the insertion of a glottal stop to clarify the boundary between the two words. Varieties that feature linking R but not intrusive R (that is, tuna oil is pronounced [ˈtjuːnə (ʔ)ɔɪl]), show a clear phonemic distinction between words with and without /r/ in the syllable coda.