Linking r

Halloween is looming, so let’s look at a phantom lurking in southern British English (SB) which mystifies and disturbs some sensitive souls. I’m referring to the behaviour of the sound /r/.

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

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 – or not, as in the case of whoever wrote this BBC web page:
bbc_gibraltaNon-rhotic accents don’t all function in the same way: that is, different accents banish /r/ from different phonetic positions. One pattern is shared by southern Britain, broad New York City and Australia; I’ll call it “Brit-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, /r/ may materialize. This phantom is “linking /r/”. Here are far /fɑː/ and f/ɑːr/East from the Oxford Advanced online dictionary:

Another pattern of non-rhoticity, which I’ll call “Deep-South-African”, lacks linking /r/. It’s exemplified by the traditional accent of the American southern states and by South African English. In these accents, words like far are typically pronounced without /r/ regardless of what 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 southern Britain, sequences like there‿are, under‿a, professor‿of, where‿are and your‿eyes would be very likely to have linking /r/, but in Deep-South-African English the historic /r/ of words like there, under, mixture, where (and far, sore, Gibraltar, etc) has been more completely exorcized.

Assuming this analysis of southern BrE vowels, the environment for linking /r/ can be stated with great simplicity:

Linking /r/
Pronounce /r/ between a monophthong and a following vowel

Or in other words, /r/ may appear intervocalically but not after j/w, ie not after FLEECE, FACE, PRICE, CHOICE or GOOSE, GOAT, MOUTH.

Sometimes linking /r/ corresponds to r in the orthography; often it’s unwritten. A linking /r/ will be unwritten if the vowel to the left belongs to the PALM, THOUGHT or commA sets, which historically lacked /r/ (and still lack it in rhotic accents). Here for example are ousting the Shah/r/altogether (BBC news):

the Obama/r/administration (BBC news):

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

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

thaw/r/out/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, with linking /r/ after what sounds like the TRAP monophthong:

Linking /r/ is optional, being most common in collocations like Pizza Express and law and order, and it only appears before a vowel. Therefore it isn’t used when speakers choose to add a glottal stop (or glottal “attack”) to the following word, which is fairly common in slow/emphatic speech or with less familiar words/phrases (and which is, 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”:

(In the clip above, Johnny Clegg uses glottal attack in “South Africa [ʔ]is” and there’s a whiff of glottal attack in his “mixture‿of”. The absence of linking /r/ from South African English might be analyzed as the general insertion of glottal stop before initial vowels – as in German – which eliminates the intervocalic environment necessary for linking /r/. However, South African glottal attack is optional: it’s absent from Clegg’s “where‿are”, but still no linking /r/ materializes.)

Unwritten /r/’s have presumably been heard as long as START, NORTH and lettER have been merged with PALM, THOUGHT and commA. Copious evidence from old films explodes the myth that unwritten /r/ is a recent phenomenon. Here are clips illustrating unwritten /r/ from Pathé newsreels of 1935/6. First (on the recently deceased Lawrence of Arabia), “changing his name to Shaw‿and forsaking his high rank”; next, “Viceroy of India‿and Lady Willingdon”; then “his innings gives South Africa‿a fighting chance of victory”.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 film Jamaica Inn provides us with several unwritten /r/’s in “Jamaica‿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‿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‿Edwardian dress” and “international law‿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‿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/, eg in my quota‿of subjects:

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet does the same in O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw‿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‿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 be sure of hearing this without linking /r/, you need a rhotic performer (or a Deep-South-African). Here’s General American speaker Elaine Stritch (born Michigan, 1925), using glottal attack:

RP-speaking actors seem to have been freer to use their language than more “official” speakers policed by authorities such as the BBC. Phonetic witchfinders in some quarters declared unwritten /r/ to be an unpermissible “intrusion”. By this stricture, speakers were effectively expected to de-merge lexical sets which had been collapsed in southern Britain for perhaps two centuries. This made little more sense than telling speakers to start pronouncing words like meet and meat differently on the basis of their history and spelling.

Inevitably, such policed 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?”, suppressing the 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/ artificially converted self-conscious RP to the Deep-South-African variety of non-rhoticity.

Pronouncing English the way it’s written is a major part of what non-native learners do wrong; they tend to pronounce the English orthography, using the phonology of their own first language. Spanish speakers, for example, tend to pronounce English rhotically, because Spanish is rhotic: it has coda /r/, as in por favor. Japanese speakers, on the other hand, tend to pronounce English with Deep-South-African non-rhoticity, because Japanese /r/ occurs only before a vowel (hence apāto ‘flat, apartment’), and because Japanese, like German, tends to insert glottal stop before word-initial vowels, so that they have no linking /r/ even when written. But in general neither Spanish nor Japanese learners will pronounce any /r/’s they haven’t seen in the orthography.

So it would be pointless to tell my non-native students to avoid unwritten /r/: they don’t use it anyway. The scant few non-natives who do use it are those with an excellent ear who least need my input. 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.

Linking /r/ may not follow the historic distribution of /r/, but it’s phonologically well-motivated, bringing English into greater conformity with the universal preference for alternating consonants and vowels. Whereas consonants generally need a vowel to be “sounding with” (con-sonant), vowels themselves can be free-standing. We might therefore expect to find languages without consonants; but of course we don’t. Streams of consecutive vowels would be unintelligible: it’s the alternation of vowels and consonants which makes spoken language possible.

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”:

From a cross-linguistic point of view, it’s arguably odder to allow sequences like this subpoen[ə.ɪ]ng than to break them up. Lacking the linking /r/ of Brit-Brooklyn-Brisbane, and the regular ʔ-insertion of German and Japanese, rhotic speakers often crush two such abutting vowels into one:

Some might consider it rather strange that a language would separate abutting vowels with /r/, an apparently arbitrary consonant compared with the more neutral ʔ, which simply stops the glottal sound source of the surrounding vowels.

A possible explanation comes from the great linguist Roman Jakobson‘s classic 1952 collaboration with Fant and Halle, Preliminaries to Speech Analysis, which analyzed the RP /r/ as the syllable-onset manifestation of schwa. They defined this variable, colourless vowel negatively, as neither i-like, a-like nor u-like. When unstressed it tends to be [ə]; when stressed (as in the STRUT set) it is opener, [ʌ]; and when in a syllable onset it is more constricted. This constriction, thanks to its negative definition, might be articulated variably, with bunching of the tongue body, and/or tongue-tip activity, and/or labial activity.

Such an analysis may be a mindstretch for those who cling to the notion that speech sounds are neatly IPA-defined body movements; but it suggests how the use of /r/ to separate abutting vowels might be the filling of an intervening consonant position with what counts in the relevant accents as a neutral value. Certainly several linking-/r/ accents, including those of southern Britain and New York City, exhibit considerable lingual-labial indeterminacy in /r/.

So linking /r/, written or not, makes a fair bit of sense. In fact 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 typically assume that because BrE kɑːd corresponds to AmE /kɑrd/, then BrE kɑːm must correspond to AmE /kɑrm/. The great Gary Oldman makes this kind of rhoticity error, though he does a fine overall job of sounding American. Here, from the film Léon, he gives us “I like these ca/r/m little moments before the storm”, and from Hannibal “the stigma/r/of your recent dishonor”:

The rules which truly describe a language – the rules inferred almost miraculously by infants as they acquire their language natively – are unwritten rules. Any “rule” which has to be spelled out to native speakers and imposed upon them is obviously one which clashes with the actual rules they have in their heads. Linking /r/ is one of these miraculously unwritten rules.

Phoneticians should promote a scientific attitude to speech. If I were analyzing, say, a native American language or a Bavarian dialect, and I described one of its phonological generalizations as “intrusive”, an unwanted disturbance, I’d rightly be accused of silly prejudice. Halloween is the day we indulge in scary old myths; that aside, let’s move on.

22 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.


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