Rogue (r)s: the history of intrusive-r

Text box showing: "A bar of soap is better than a spa in Bath."

The study in a sentence

The phenomenon of intrusive-r entered the English language by means of analogy, through the extension of linking-r (as in bar of soap), which started to appear around the same time.

The change in the pattern over time is accompanied by a change in attitudes to people who use it.

A map showing regions of England where the rural accent was rhotic in the 1950s. Data from J.C. Wells (1982), Accents of English p. 12, based on H. Orton et al. (1962-71) Survey of English dialects. From:

The question

Speakers from Scotland, Ireland or North America typically pronounce the <r> in both bar and better, as they speak rhotic dialects of English. Many southern British English speakers, who are non-rhotic, do not pronounce the <r> in better, where it occurs before a consonant (or a pause). They do, however, pronounce the <r> in bar of soap, where it appears before a vowel.

  • This phenomenon is called linking-r.

Many English speakers also pronounce an /r/ in a spa in Bath , even though there is no written <r>. So spa is pronounced as if it was spar (as in the name of the shop).

  • The rogue /r/ that we hear in this case is called intrusive-r.

Other examples include: the idea of peace and law and order.

Do you pronounce an /r/ at the end of the first word in these phrases?

Like linking-r, intrusive-r only appears when the following word in the phrase starts with a vowel.

An example of analogy:

A (mother) : B (daughter)

X (father) : [?] (son)

Key concept

  • Analogy is a common source of language change, particularly in morphology (word formation).
  • Analogy often serves to regularize paradigms, such as the singular/plural of nouns, and the past tense of verbs, both of which have become more regular over time in English, through analogy.
  • Analogy creates new linguistic forms by extending an existing pattern into a new environment.
    • It is based on proportions, like questions found in verbal reasoning tests, which is something human beings usually find quite easy:
      • e.g. A is to B as X is to [?] (mother is to daughter as father is to ?)
        • where the task is to supply the word or letter that stands for [?] (son).
  • In the case of analogical linguistic change, the form [?] doesn’t exist at first but is created by speakers on the basis of the relationships between A and B and between A and X.

Why is intrusive-r present in the speech of many English speakers, and where did it come from?

If the /r/ is not really part of the word, is it 'wrong'?

Orthographic, phonemic and narrow transcriptions of the phrase 'a spa in Bath' as produced by a speaker of Southern Standard British English.

Methods: Levels of Transcription

There is often a difference between the written form of a word and its pronunciation.

  • The written or orthographic form is usually shown in italics or between angled brackets: < >
  • The 'dictionary' form (phonemic transcription) is usually shown in slanted brackets: / /
  • The observed pronunciation (narrow transcription) is shown in square brackets: [ ]
      • we can see the intrusive-r here in the narrow transcription of a spa in Bath
      • and also assimilation of the final nasal sound in <in> to the /b/ at the start of Bath

When sociolinguists want to talk about a sound that differs from one accent to another (a variable), they will show the sound inside ordinary curved brackets ( ) as we have done in the title here.

Stage 1: linking-r only. Before a consonant or a pause:	with /r/ "what a dea[r]" versus without /r/ "what an idea". Before a vowel:	with /r/ "dear Amanda" versus without /r/ "the idea of it".  Stage 2: intrusive-r emerges. Before a consonant or a pause:	with /r/ "what a dea[r]" versus without /r/ "what an idea". Before a vowel:	with /r/ "dear Amanda" versus without /r/ "the idea[r] of it".

How does the pattern of language change by analogy work?

Stage 1: the pattern of pronouncing /r/ before a following vowel becomes established for words ending in written <r>.

Stage 2: The pattern extends by analogy to words containing the same vowels but that don't end in a written <r>.

The Answer (1)

The emergence of intrusive-r illustrates a common type of language change: change by analogy.

For analogy to take place, two conditions must be satisfied:

  1. The source (copied from) and the target (copied to) have to be structurally similar
    • e.g. same part of speech (nouns, verbs etc) and/or similar phonetic shape
  2. The source needs to be frequent in the language and the target rare.

Are the conditions for analogy met in the case of intrusive-r?

  1. Yes, linking-r and intrusive-r appear in the same place (before another word starting with a vowel) and only in words containing the vowels /ə, ɔː, ɑː/.
  2. Source words such as letter, more and spar were far more common in the 18th century than words ending in the same vowels but written without a final <r> (such as comma, law and spa).
"Another vice in the cockney pronunciation is the changing of the sound of the last syllables of words ending in ‘ow’, wherever it is not sounded like a diphthong, but like a simple ‘o’, (which is always the case when the last syllable is unaccented) into 'er' - as feller, for fellow - beller, holler, foller, winder, - for bellow,  hollow, follow, window. As also adding the letter ‘r’ to all proper names ending in ‘a’ unaccented, as Belindar, Dorindar, for Belinda, Dorinda."
From: Sheridan, Thomas. 1762/1803. A course of lectures on elocution. London: Strahan.

The Answer (2)

As to whether intrusive-r is wrong, it depends on what you mean by “wrong”.

In its early days, intrusive-r was the subject of proscription by many grammarians. Nowadays, most people produce intrusive-r without even realising it, nor do most speakers notice it in others.

Linguists do not usually concern themselves with prescriptive approaches to language, but instead adopt a descriptive approach. This means looking at language in as objective a way as possible, observing, describing and explaining what they see, in the same way scientists do.

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Listening for intrusive-r in a song.

Extension task

Testing the claim about the origin of intrusive-r in English.

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

rogue (r) > IMD

Meet the author

Márton Sóskuthy

Márton was a Lecturer in the Department from 2013 -2018 and is now at UBC, Vancouver

Read the paper

Soskuthy, M. (2013). Analogy in the emergence of intrusive-r in English. English Language and Linguistics, 17(1), 55–84. Download author copy