Linking r

Standard Southern British (SSB) is a non-rhotic accent family, which means that it allows the sound /r/ only when a vowel immediately follows, e.g. right, very, for example. It is not allowed before a consonant or a pause, e.g. forty four. This loss of /r/ occurred in England during the 18th century, and resulted in important mergers of word sets: START words merged with PALM, NORTH with THOUGHT, and lettER with commA. These word sets remained distinct in the more conservative accents of Ireland, Scotland and North America.

In non-rhotic systems, then, farm rhymes with calm, law sounds the same as lore, and Malta rhymes with Gibraltar. Children acquire words like saw and sore as phonetically identical; when subsequently learning to write, they find that such words are written differently, and the spellings simply have to be memorized. Of course, pupils make mistakes with these spellings – and so, occasionally, do adults:
bbc_gibraltaNon-rhotic accents are not all the same: there are different sub-types of non-rhoticity. One is the SSB pattern, shared by broad New York City and Australia; I’ll call it “Britain-Brooklyn-Brisbane”. In these accents, a word like far has no final /r/ before a consonant or pause; but, if a following word starts with a vowel, a “linking /r/” may be inserted. Here are far /fɑː/ and f/ɑːr/East from the Oxford Advanced online dictionary:

Another pattern of non-rhoticity has no linking /r/. It’s exemplified by the traditional accent of the American southern states and by South African English, and I’ll call it “Deep-South-African”. In these accents, words like far are typically pronounced without /r/ even if a vowel follows. Here is Mississippi writer William Faulkner accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature without linking /r/ in “there‿are no longer problems of the spirit” and “he lives under‿a curse”:

Here is talk show host Charlie Rose, from North Carolina, without linking /r/ in “professor‿of psychology”:

And here is South African musician Johnny Clegg saying “where‿are we now?” without linking /r/:

And South African comedian Trevor Noah saying “Republicans, open your‿eyes”, again without linking /r/:

In cases like these four, the Britain-Brooklyn-Brisbane accents would tend to insert linking /r/. The environment for linking /r/ can be stated with great simplicity, if we assume this analysis of the vowel system. (See also my book English After RP.)

Linking /r/
Insert /r/ between a monophthong and an immediately following vowel.

In other words, /r/ is inserted between any two adjacent vowels, but not after FLEECE, FACE, PRICE, CHOICE (which can be analysed as ending in a glide j) and GOOSE, GOAT, MOUTH (which can be analysed as ending in a glide w). So the vowels which are followed by linking /r/ are the vowels of START, NORTH, NURSE, NEAR, SQUARE, CURE and lettER. We can call these the ‘linking /r/ vowels’.

Often, linking /r/ occurs when there’s an ‘r’ in the spelling: for example, far east, professor of psychology, open your eyes, etc. But three of the linking /r/ vowels are sometimes written without an ‘r’. These are:

• the START vowel, which in non-rhotic accents is also the PALM vowel, /ɑː/
• the NORTH vowel, which in non-rhotic accents is also the THOUGHT vowel, /ɔː/ (more accurately /oː/)
• the lettER vowel, which in non-rhotic accents is also the commA vowel, /ə/

Words belonging to the PALM, THOUGHT or commA sets were never historically pronounced with /r/, and so have no ‘r’ in the spelling. For example, Shah, saw, law, draw, thaw, pizza, America, Obama, Angela.

Linking /r/ is a phonetic phenomenon, determined by phonetic factors and mostly operating unconsciously – like the phenomenon whereby a vowel is pronounced in wanted but not in walked. Speakers follow such rules without thinking, and without referring to spellings. So speakers will insert /r/ after both far and Shah, after both your and saw, after both professor and Obama.

Here is a wide range of audio examples:

ousting the Shah/r/altogether (BBC news):

the Obama/r/administration (BBC news):

America/r/and China; America/r/and Britain (BBC news):

Old Master draw/r/ings (Conservative author Godfrey Barker):

thaw/r/out; thaw/r/it (British Gas information film):

draw/r/ing breath (Jon Finch, BBC Shakespeare production):

saw/r/Othello’s (Penelope Wilton, BBC Shakespeare production):

Portia/r/is Brutus’ harlot (Virginia McKenna, BBC Shakespeare production):

Law/r/and Order (ITV announcers):

cheetah/r/and snow leopards (Prince Charles):

Angela/r/and I (Prime Minister David Cameron):


Every Christmas in England you’re bound to hear hosanna/r/in excelsis:

And here Gavin Hewitt, the BBC’s most senior journalist covering Europe, refers to the French President as François/r/Hollande:

As an alternative to linking /r/, speakers sometimes choose to add a glottal stop (or glottal “attack”) to the following vowel. This is fairly common in slow, emphatic speech or with less familiar words and phrases; it’s perhaps becoming more common among younger speakers. Here TV presenter Phillip Schofield uses a glottal attack in a relatively emphatic “Law [ʔ]and Order UK”, then immediately follows it with a faster, less emphatic “talk about drama/r/on our screens”:

Unwritten linking /r/ has presumably been heard as long as START, NORTH and lettER have been merged with PALM, THOUGHT and commA. It’s a myth that unwritten /r/ is a recent phenomenon: copious evidence can be found of unwritten linking /r/ in old films. Here are clips from Pathé newsreels of 1935 and 1936, the first one referring to the recently deceased Lawrence of Arabia:

changing his name to Shaw/r/and forsaking his high rank:

Viceroy of India/r/and Lady Willingdon:

His innings gives South Africa/r/a fighting chance of victory:

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 film Jamaica Inn provides us with several instances of “Jamaica/r/Inn”:

Another Hitchcock film The Paradine Case (1947) gives us actress Ann Todd (b. 1909) using unwritten /r/ in “I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than being in a gondola/r/again with you”:

And from 1947 and 1949 Pathé newsreels here is the famous narrator Bob Danvers-Walker (b. 1906) using unwritten /r/ in “her taffeta/r/Edwardian dress” and “international law/r/and order”:

And from 1955, in the BBC serial Quatermass II, we have Monica Grey (b. 1929) using unwritten /r/ in “You said an atmosphere of ammonia/r/and methane”:

/r/ is a variable sound, whether or not it’s linking, and whether or not it’s written. In several of the older clips we can hear the tap, ɾ, which is old-fashioned now but persists in the English of classical actors and singers. In an earlier post I gave clips of classical actor Timothy Dalton using unwritten tapped /r/, e.g. in my quota/r/of subjects:

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet does the same in O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw/r/and resolve itself into a dew:

And here is the grand actress Hermione Gingold (b. London 1897), in the musical A Little Night Music, putting an unwritten trilled /r/ into At the villa/r/of the Baron de Signac:

Angela Lansbury (b. London, 1925) does more or less the same:

The unwritten /r/ of Dame Cleo Laine (b. London, 1927) isn’t a trill, but it’s there all right:

To hear this phrase without linking /r/, you need a rhotic performer (or a Deep-South-Africa accent). Here’s General American speaker Elaine Stritch (born Michigan, 1925), using glottal attack, villa[ʔ]of:

In using unwritten linking /r/, the RP speakers above were simply following the phonetic rules of their language, unconsciously, as all speakers of all languages do. However, linking /r/ is unusual in that it was seized upon by various “authorities” as undesirable, and it acquired the notorious label “intrusive r”. It was rather ironic to insist that speakers slavishly follow the spelling when English pronunciation deviates from it so often; but in the RP era it was a matter of huge social consequence to pronounce in a narrowly-defined “received” way. So speakers were expected to half-suppress a rule of their own language, de-merging lexical sets which had been collapsed in southern Britain for a century or more.

Inevitably, speakers often ended up suppressing linking /r/ in general, whether written or not. Here an RP-speaking interviewer in 1965 asks the Beatles “Have you checked, gentlemen, whether you’ll be able to wear your MBEs on any of these other foreign television programmes?”. He suppresses the normal linking /r/ in your‿MBEs:

In this 1950s newsreel on barrel-making, the RP narrator suppresses linking /r/ in hoops are‿added:

And here is the late TV astronomer Sir Patrick Moore suppressing linking /r/ in a picture‿of one:

This inhibition of linking /r/ in self-conscious RP effectively meant switching to the Deep-South-African variety of non-rhoticity.

Learners tend to pronounce English orthography by reference to the conventions of their own first language. Spanish speakers, for example, tend to pronounce English rhotically, because Spanish itself is rhotic, pronouncing /r/ in words like por favor. Japanese speakers, on the other hand, tend to pronounce English non-rhotically, because Japanese itself is non-rhotic: /r/ occurs only before a vowel. In fact Japanese-accented English is non-rhotic in the Deep-South-African way: Japanese speakers tend to insert glottal stop before word-initial vowels, so that they have no linking /r/ even when it’s written. Learners from all language backgrounds are unlikely to pronounce any /r/’s they haven’t seen in the orthography.

The very few non-natives who do use supposedly “intrusive” /r/ are those with an excellent ear who managed to sound native or very nearly so. Earlier this year Italian phonetician Alex Rotatori, who has extremely native-like SSB pronunciation, posted a connected-speech transcription about his home town of Tarquinia, beginning tɑːkwɪniər ɪz… Alex’s transcription of unwritten /r/ isn’t a mistake, it shows what a good phonetician he is.

Linking /r/, written or not, brings English into greater conformity with the universal preference for alternating consonants and vowels. I often think that a better term would be “separating /r/”, since it keeps vowels apart, like the /n/ in the indefinite article before vowels: an apple a day. It’s the alternation of vowels and consonants which makes spoken language possible: streams of consecutive vowels would be unintelligible.

By contrast, rhotic speakers and Deep-South-Africans are remarkably tolerant of abutting vowels (or “hiatus”). Here’s American TV presenter Tyler Mathisen saying “the subpoenaing of phone records”:

Arguably it’s stranger to allow sequences like this subpoen[ə.ɪ]ng than to break them up, as in SSB subpoena/r/ing. And Americans aren’t that happy with abutting vowels either, often crushing them into one. E.g. pizz’Express (which sounds like Pete’s Express), and the Obam’administration:

The only /r/ that’s sensibly worth avoiding is the kind that constitutes a mistake when attempting another accent. This is a common pitfall when AmE is attempted by southern Brits, who wrongly assume that because BrE card /kɑːd/ corresponds to AmE /kɑrd/, then BrE calm /kɑːm/ must correspond to AmE /kɑrm/. The great actor Gary Oldman does a fine overall job of sounding American, but he does tend to make this kind of hyper-rhoticity error. Here, from the film Léon, he says “I like these ca/r/m little moments before the storm”, and from Hannibal “the stigma/r/of your recent dishonor”:

Those /r/s can be called intrusive, because they don’t belong in the accents he’s attempting. But describing a real phonetic rule in some language as “intrusive” is just prejudice.

30 replies
  1. Alex Rotatori
    Alex Rotatori says:

    “Earlier this year Italian phonetician Alex Rotatori, who has extremely native-like SB pronunciation, posted a connected-speech transcription about his home town of Tarquinia, beginning tɑːkwɪniər ɪz… Alex’s transcription of unwritten r isn’t a sign that he’s succumbed to the powers of darkness, it shows what a good phonetician he is.”

    Semplicemente, grazie!

  2. Aleph
    Aleph says:

    Oh, I love the linking /r/! But not always, rɒˈlɑ̃ːd for əʊˈlɑː̃(n)d sounds decidedly wrong and odd.

    Sometimes I fear British Pathé will ring the doorbell of your house and say that you should remove all the uncredited videos of theirs you post.

    That news reader from the 1935 clip has some really lovely and unrecorded pronunciations: kɒˈstjuːmz (to use the John C. Wells syllabification), k[r]ɑʊd, with that gorgeous ‘rolled r’, ˌkʌlˈkʌtə, something resembling [mɑːˈrɑːdʒɐ] and mɑːhɑːrɑːˈniː, where that ɑː sometimes sounds really fronted, which makes me wonder if you will ever dedicated a post to American English and the current IPA scheme used to transcribe it.

  3. Sidney Wood
    Sidney Wood says:

    Thanks for all the early sound clips. There’s a treasure house in all these early recordings that needs to be preserved. The British Library has made a start.

    I’ve noticed that some recent work on the intrusive r refers to it as sandhi-r.

    While on the topic of r, it’s perhaps time to look more closely at bunched r production. British phonetics manuals have targeted RP so closely that the focus has been on the apical and laminal varieties that your examples illustrate so well, and largely ignored the bunched variety the rest of us have always used. My guess is that it will turn out to be uvular with a constricted upper pharynx. When Ellis reported the Kentish variety of Southern British, he described it as a burr, the term used in the late 19thc for uvular.

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Hello Sidney – thanks for reading. I think sandhi is just Sanskrit for ‘linking’, and doesn’t imply ‘intrusion’.

      Of course, plenty of British speakers have r which is dorsal and/or labial. (As you may know, I did a post on bunched r.) But the IPA philosophy is to define each symbol in simple articulatory terms, one articulation to one symbol.

      The crazy thing about ‘r’ cross-linguistically is that we use the label to describe sounds made with just about any value of place and manner except oral/nasal stops. Even more striking to me than the articulatory variability is the variability in the actual sounds. I suspect that ‘r’ tends to be characterized negatively – as a continuant that lacks other distinctive values in the system.

      • Aleph
        Aleph says:

        Strange? Why? Aren’t the languages just using the grapheme symbol to illustrate simply and effectively and probably in the only way possible how a sound is pronounced in a language?

        Are there languages which write two or more sounds as (a single) r?

        I’m not surprised that something whih is articulatorily varible is also variable manner of articulation and phonation.

      • Sidney Wood
        Sidney Wood says:

        There is an impudent observation, and one that I’ve seen once upon a time in an American phonetics manual, is that the one common feature of all rhotics is that the they are written with the letter r. Delattre did a crosslinguistic X-ray motion film study of rhotics and decided the common feature was a circular tongue movement down in the pharynx. Sometimes we thought the common feature on spectrograms was a sharp drop in the higher formants and a sharp rise again, so you saw several V shapes stacked above each other. It seemed to work for Swedish (coronal or uvular). I was interested in vowels when I made my X-ray films, so I missed rhotics. I do have Swedish uvular, and Inuit uvulars (rhotic and stop), and Bulgarian (coronal tap). The critical constriction for uvulars is in the upper pharynx, same as for [oɔɤ].

  4. Emilio Márquez
    Emilio Márquez says:

    A very useful post. Thanks!
    Here’s my question: Is it possible to hear [ˈpiːtsəɾəɫ] in “(When d’you think the) pizza’ll (be ready?)” (from John Wells’s English Intonation, E3.30.4)?

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      You’re welcome! Yes, it’s definitely possible. Contracted will is typically non-syllabic after pronouns, so you’ll and who’ll can rhyme with pool. Otherwise it’s typically əl (though this can in turn become syllabic l), so linking r is possible. The same applies to the law’ll be repealed or Lady Gaga’ll be appearing.

      (You’ve transcribed a tap r, but the approximant is more common.)

  5. Philip Taylor
    Philip Taylor says:

    Aleph asks “Are there languages which write two or more sounds as (a single) r ?”.

    Well, if you are willing to accept the Pinyin transliteration of Mandarin Chinese as a language, then yes. I and my fellow students had great difficulty understanding how the sound of “r” in “rén” could sound so different to the “r” of “rèn”, and none of our three Chinese teachers could either hear the difference or explain it to us. It was only when I discussed it with the son of one of my teachers that he pointed out that the hanzi (“character”) for “rén” is completely different to the hanzi for “rèn”, and there was therefore no reason why they /should/ sound the same. Pinyin is, of course, a highly artificial “language”, and corresponds far more closely to a phonemic transcription than a phonetic. You can hear the two words used in context here (wǒ shì zhōng guó rén) and here (hěn gāo xīng rèn shí nǐ).

    • dainichi
      dainichi says:

      “no reason why they /should/ sound the same”

      But… there is a reason, which is that their Pinyin (which is admittedly only approximately phonemic) have something in common, namely the “ren”. So if the /r/s sound different, it must be due to the different environment, e.g. the preceding syllable coda or the tone on the “ren” syllable. Or it could be personal or regional variation, of course.

  6. Tsukichan
    Tsukichan says:

    As a native Japanese speaker, I think that the reson why Japanese people tend to pronounce English non-rhoticly is because transcriptions of English words in Japanese Katakanas are based on those RP symbols, which with occasional exceptions, are non-rhotic. And in Japanese schools, students usually learn English using Katakanas, NOT pronunciation symbols, so they basically don’t have any ideas how the language is formed, and their pronunciations are based on Katakana transcriptions.
    Here are some non-rhotic Katakana transcriptions of English in Japanese.
    レター(retaa, letter) ハート(haato, heart) キュア(kyua, cure) but キュアリング(kyuaringu, curing) フォー(foo, for/four) シチュエーション(shichueeshon, situation)
    The only exception I can think of is the letter R which for some reason is transcribed as アール(aaru), so Japanese students may pronunce rhoticly when they are referring to the letter R.
    Also, this transcription does not have linking-rs, or any linkings in compound words. So you get フォーエバー(foo*ebaa, forever) アンダーエスティメイト(andaa*esutimeito, underestimate) where Rs are constantly pronounced even in RP. Also, because there are no linkings, a every radical of a compound word should end in their “original form”, so you get some vowel insertions. e.g. ミスアンダースタンド(mis*uandasutando, misunderstand) フェイドアウト(feid*oauto, fadeout)

    • Tsukichan
      Tsukichan says:

      Japanese transcriptions of English is pretty interesting that I can talk a lot.
      There are many other characteristics which give a Japanese accent to speakers.
      For instance, Schwa is transcribed in different ways when they are written with different vowel letters, despite making the same sound. “a”, カセット(k*asetto, cassette), “i”, ポッシブル(possh*iburu, possible), “e”, エレメント(erem*ento, element), “u”, インダストリー(ind*asutorii, industry), “o”, ハーモニー(haam*onii, harmony). Therefore, words with same Schwa sound may be pronounced differently by Japanese English learners. Same phenomenon also occurs with the KIT vowel: “i”(others), リットル(r*ittoru, little), “e”, ウィメンズ(w*im*enzu, women’s), and the STRUT vowel but with many excetions:”u”, カット(k*atto, cut), “o”, フロント(fur*onto, front), but カップ/コップ(k*a/oppu, cup), ラブ(r*abu, love), etc.

  7. Megan
    Megan says:

    I really enjoyed your YouTube video on this subject. I thought I would add for Southeast Brits that most Americans who are not from the north Midwest, pronounce the first two danger vowels the same way. Draw and law rhyme with spa and bra.


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  4. […] R is sometimes called “intrusive R”. However, as Geoff Lindsey puts it in his brilliant blog post on the subject of linking and “intrusive” R, it doesn’t help much to give two […]

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