Intrusive ‘r’ is a phenomenon in phonetics that occurs in some varieties of English where an /r/ sound is inserted between certain vowels in connected speech, even when it doesn’t appear in the written form of the words. This is often referred to as an intrusive or epenthetic /r/. The mechanism behind the intrusive ‘r’ is believed to involve the influence of neighbouring sounds and the speaker’s articulatory habits. This typically happens when the first word ends in a non-rhotic vowel sound such as /ə/, /ɪə/, /ɑː/, or /ɔː/ and the next word begins with a vowel sound. The /r/ sound is inserted to prevent a hiatus, which is a sequence of two vowels without an intervening consonant sound. Understanding the mechanism and variations of the intrusive ‘r’ is crucial in phonetics as it sheds light on the complexity and diversity of speech patterns across different regions and linguistic backgrounds.
- “India and Pakistan” may be pronounced as “Indi-ar-and Pakistan” (intrusive ‘r’ between “India” and “and”)
- “Sofa and armchair” may be pronounced as “sofa-r-and armchair” (intrusive ‘r’ between “sofa” and “and”)
Intrusive ‘r’ is most common in non-rhotic accents of English, such as those spoken in most of England and Wales, parts of the United States, and Australia. In these accents, the /r/ sound is not pronounced at the end of a word unless it is followed by another word that begins with a vowel sound. For example, the word “idea” would be pronounced /aɪˈdɪə/ in isolation, but it would be pronounced /aɪˈdɪər ɒf/ when followed by the word “of”.
Intrusive ‘r’ can also occur in rhotic accents of English, such as those spoken in most of the southern United States and Scotland. However, in these accents, the /r/ sound is pronounced more strongly, and it is less likely to be inserted between words.
Conditions for Intrusive ‘r’
Intrusive ‘r’ is more likely to occur when the first word ends in a vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u) or a schwa (the neutral vowel sound) and is followed by a word beginning with a vowel sound.
- The /r/ sound is only inserted if the first word ends in a non-rhotic vowel sound.
- The /r/ sound is only inserted if the next word begins with a vowel sound.
- The /r/ sound is not inserted if the two words are separated by a pause or by a consonant sound.
Purpose and Effect
Intrusive ‘r’ can help smoothen the transition between words and improve the overall flow of speech. It adds a subtle rhythmic quality to the language and can make speech sound more natural and connected. But it’s important to note that the intrusive ‘r’ is mostly used in informal, everyday speech and less commonly in slow, carefully enunciated speech. While its use is widespread, it can sometimes be seen as non-standard or even incorrect, especially in more formal or careful types of speech.
Examples of Intrusive ‘r’
law and order /lɔːr ən ˈɔːrdə/
media event /ˈmiːdɪər ɪˈvent/
idea of /aɪˈdɪər ɒf/
saw a film /sɔːr ə ˈfɪlm/
supernova in the sky /sʊpəˈnoʊvə rɪn ðə ˈskaɪ/
Intrusive ‘r’ vs. Linking ‘r’
Intrusive ‘r’ should not be confused with linking ‘r’ where the /r/ sound connects words ending in vowels to words beginning with vowels, but it doesn’t create a new syllable. Unlike linking ‘r’, the intrusive ‘r’ is added even when there’s no ‘r’ written at the end of the word. Linking ‘r’ is more common in rhotic accents, where /r/ is pronounced at the end of words.
Mechanism Behind Intrusive ‘r’
The mechanism behind intrusive ‘r’ and its relation to speech production and perception is still a topic of ongoing research. One theory suggests that the intrusive ‘r’ occurs when there is a slight anticipatory movement of the tongue towards the position required for the following vowel sound. This movement can inadvertently result in the tongue briefly touching the alveolar ridge, producing the /r/ sound. Another theory proposes that the intrusive ‘r’ is a perceptual phenomenon, where listeners expect to hear an /r/ sound in certain contexts and therefore perceive it even when it is not present.
Despite debates about correctness, the intrusive ‘r’ displays a key aspect of the English language’s elasticity and the practical, utilitarian nature of language evolution, as it aids in the flow and rhythm of speech. It is important to be aware of it to speak and understand the language fluently. However, it may also be noted that not all speakers of English use intrusive ‘r’, and there is some variation in how it is used.