Linking /r/ in the General British pronunciation of English

Adapted and updated from the Journal of the International Phonetic Association 1975 Vol. 5 no.1 pp 37- 42.

Preliminary Note

OED online 9 May 2014 contained the following entry:

linking r: a letter r in word-final position that is normally pronounced before a following vowel but is silent before a following consonant (as in far, far away).

This is unsatisfactory as a scientific definition. It might be better expressed as:

linking r: an r-sound which is principally heard corresponding to (and historically speaking  constitutes a retention of the original value of) an r letter of the traditional spelling in word-final position immediately before a vowel sound which follows it with complete absence of any rhythmical hiatus (as in far away).

1950 J. S. KENYON Amer. Pronunc. (ed. 10) 164 Observe that linking r is the use between words of an r that is spelt and was formerly pronounced. Ibid. 165 Linking r is sometimes omitted in Southern British.

1956 D. JONES Outl. Eng. Phonetics (ed. 8) xxi. [Page]196 When a word ending with the letter r is immediately followed by a word beginning with a vowel, then a usually inserted in the pronunciation...r inserted in this way is called ‘linking r ’.

The first appearance of the expression linking r in print appears to have been in the 1917 first edition of the Daniel Jones English Pronouncing Dictionary where at p. xvii "r-Linking" occurs as the heading of a paragraph which contains the statement "It will be recalled that the sound « r » is often inserted at the end of a word when the word immediately following it (in connected speech) begins with a vowel."

Linking /r/

1. Linking /r/ concerned words having as final phoneme in isolate occurrence in twentieth-century GB (General British) pronunciation  either /ɑː/ or /ɔː/ or one of the five phonemes involving a (final) central vowel /ə, ɜː, ɪə, eə, ʊə/. Since the end of the twentieth century, /eə/ has been increasingly recognised as having superseded as mainstream GB usage by the monophthong /ɛː/. When any of these is followed closely by a word beginning with one of the English vowel sounds an /r/ may be heard. The Gimson 1970 treatment of this topic contained detailed comments on the limitation of the operation of this pattern in situations where many or most speakers are inhibited from applying the rule to link owing to the influence of popular conceptions of incorrectitude in regard to the uttering of /r/ where no r was represented in the traditional orthography. However, it contained no explicit reference to the dependence of the r-link on either the segmental or the prosodic environments which the words involved in the r-link provide. On the other hand, Ward 1939 and various works of Jones (1918, 1956a, 1956b, 1956c) described at some length "special circumstances in which a final r has no consonantal value even when the following word begins with a vowel" (Jones 1956b:§757). Gimson 1970 made no reference to such cases nor to Jones's mention of them. The enquirer must therefore wonder whether there was no reference to such exceptional cases because they are no longer current or merely from pressures of space or possibly from uncertainty. Gimson's revision of the Jones 1956a text of Jones's Explanations in Jones-Gimson 1967, which made several minor amendments, left the fairly lengthy treatment of linking /r/ unaltered.

2. Jones 1918 made the bare remark quoted above and repeated in 1956b: §757, but in the re-written 1956a and 1956c he said more cautiously of his exceptional cases "not as a rule inserted" before a vowel. One of these cases referred to insertion of /r/ being "unusual if a pause is possible between the words, even if no pause is actually made". After over ten years of careful systematic observation of the r-linking usages of fairly large numbers of speakers, in particular of scores of newsreaders employed in British national broadcasting, my impression was that this comment was not applicable to current General British pronunciation . It would seem that in such cases as Jones cited viz he opened the door and walked in and we'll go there later if there's time the r-link is generally made in non-hesitant, not particularly deliberate styles of delivery. However, it is quite true that the link is sometimes omitted even when no other suggestion of pause is made. Examples can be seen in Trim 1959 of links across explicit tone-group boundaries. The other of Jones's two special cases, the only one of the two which features also in Ward 1939, occurs when the syllable which would otherwise make the link begins with /r/ as in error, interior, nearer, rare, roar, there, are etc. In all of these items given by Jones as examples of words after which linking /r/ would "as a rule" be avoided, current usage clearly operates the general rule of making a link.

3. The pattern is that currently, if simple /r/ begins the linkable syllable, the link is in general made. When made it sounds neither hurried nor undignified. For example, Sir Laurence Olivier uses r-link in his film version of Othello in It is the very error of the moon. Even when one or more other consonants preceding a stressed link syllable as in bra, registrar, straw and draw the link is quite likely to be made in normally fluent utterance. However, often in such cases, and usually when the link syllable is unstressed and begins with a consonant cluster ending with /r/, the link is avoided. This applies to words inevitably so structured such as algebra, contra, extra, orchestra, Sandra and zebra and (at all but points of marked rallentando) usually to words readily or regularly so structured such as Barbara, camera, emperor, labourer, lecturer, manufacturer, murderer, opera etc. At even normal conversational rates of utterance such words very often show 'compression' (see Windsor Lewis 1969: 34), of the resultant two schwas into one, eg in camera and tripod /ˈkæmrən ˎtraɪpɒd/, opera and ballet /ˈɒprən ˎbæleɪ/ without syllabification of the /n/. Anitra and Peter and Anita and Peter are thus commonly homophonous /ə'niːtrən ˎpiːtə/. Similarly Victoria and Albert tends often not to exhibit link but to compress the two resultant successive schwas into one. Examples of linking syllables beginning with /r/ may be found in Gimson 1970: 209, area /r/of and Pring-Germer 1962: 21, 23 terror; 35 error; O'Connor 1971:17 mirror .

4. There is one largish group of expressions which break the r-link pattern for fairly obvious reasons. Honorifics such as Mr, Sir, Doctor, Señor, Signor, Monsieur, etc, tend often (fairly regularly in reading aloud) to be followed by either an actual pause or an equivalent link-suppression when a name is introduced. Clearly with English names like the fortunately not very common Adcliffe, Eade, Odd, Odgers etc the ambiguity of the /r/ would be embarrassing. It was natural that newsreaders referring to the late Dr Erhardt should not want to sound as if they were talking about a Dr Rareheart and that some of them at least (though by no means all) should try to make The Law of the Sea distinct from The Lore of the Sea.

5. Certain BBC World Service newsreaders, especially those of the old guard in the 1970s, could sometimes be heard employing non-colloquial usages like Far East /'fɑː ˋʔiːst/ with glottal plosive or Minister of /'mɪnɪstə [ʔ]ɒv.../ with glottal plosive (and strongform of of by the late Peter King at least), but such usages would strike one by their unnaturalness in a conversational context. Compare those who strongly flap their linking r's: the Jones 1956b: § 756, comment 'generally the flapped variety', suggests a usage very far from current natural conversation, unless it entails a flap so weak as to sound different from a normal /r/ purely by its brevity. As was pointed out rightly at Jones 1956a: xxv, the use or non-use of linking /r/ is a notable field for idiosyncratic variation on the part of individual speakers. One even finds in one and the same speaker on the one hand a tendency to drop common r-links and on the other free use of 'intrusive' r.

6. One BBC newsreader who even apparently regularly used r-link to the derivative suffix of drawing /drɔːrɪŋ/ might yet omit linking /r/ in our air correspondent. Some speakers have the odd phrase or two which they treat similarly without r-link, as eg in before it or for it. [Such usages have become increasingly rare by the 21st century.] Speakers who do so with enclitic pronouns are comparable to the minority who use /h/ in almost all occurrences of enclitic him, her etc. At the other end of the scale a familiar expression like the Chancellor of the Exchequer may elide both schwas as well as /r/ becoming homophonous with the non-existent the chancel of etc / ðə 'tfɑːnsl əv ði ɪks'ʧekə/. A "quart of an hour" spoken fluently passes unnoticed for quarter of. The first pair of words of the title Victoria and Albert Museum is generally made homophonous with the hardly existent coupling *Victorian Albert.

7. The clear path along which the EFL learner should be guided is obviously between the extremes of preciousness and casualness. One of the very few uncommendable things in O'Connor's admirable Better English Pronunciation was its invitation to the EFL learner to ignore linking /r/ if he finds it 'easier' to do so (p.79). It seems most undesirable to encourage such an approach. The proportion of British speakers who have no r-links in expressions like never again, cheer up, runner up, before our eyes, an hour or so, where are, our own, RAF etc, is very small indeed. This style of utterance, when heard at the rate of delivery generally found most comfortable by EFL speakers, is widely felt to be precious or effeminate and very often correlates with socially conspicuous varieties of pronunciation. This is not to suggest that all non-linking sounds affected etc. In a very markedly fluent style non-linking very often sounds perfectly natural but it is one of the characteristics of a casual and/or very fluent style of delivery and, if the other characteristics - as is very likely to be the case from EFL speakers - are not in general harmony with this style, the non-linkings will very probably stand out as unpleasantly incongruous.

The so-called 'intrusive' linking /r/

8. Probably next in notoriety to the dropping of /h/ and the 'dropping' of g (from -ng) in the popular canon of vices that puristically inclined English-speakers profess to abhor is the utterance of an r-sound where no corresponding r-letter 'justifies' doing so in the traditional orthography. Typical of this popular attitude were the comments in Voice and Speech in the Theatre (1950), a manual of speech for aspiring actors by J. Clifford Turner, who under the heading "The Outcast, or Intrusive R" remarks "One of the cardinal sins of utterance is the insertion of an R where none exists in the spelling. All speakers ... are guilty of this at one time or another .... It is not easy to avoid using it in ... conversational utterance, but the idea of it elsewhere must not be entertained". The reader of these linguistically rather naïvely expressed comments can clearly read between the lines that extensive use of non-orthographical linking /r/ is Turner's last-quoted remark, a good deal of such /r/-linking is also to be heard even from the most admired practitioners of our most elevated language of stage, pulpit, bar and so on. One wonders how far it was a case of 'give a dog a bad name'. Perhaps the widespread inhibitions about using the non-orthographic analogous linking r would not exist if it had been labelled the 'euphonic' r by some revered pundit such as Dr Johnson. That was how A. J. Ellis referred to it in Volume V of his On Early English Pronunciation at p. 229 [1661] in commenting on how Thackeray had indicated the speech of a fictional footman's diary in a comic piece in Punch in 1845 or so with euphonic r's in pawing, drawing and saw ’em etc. 

9. The French obviously have no guilt feelings about their precisely comparable use of /t/ in y a-t-il etc but they have given that orthographical recognition of course. This unetymological type of r-link has been known for two hundred years. It naturally strikes those who pronounce all orthographical r's as very curious. From time to time it receives comment as when President Kennedy was 'accused' of pronouncing Cuba as /kjubər/, a misleading half truth. Also comment has been rather oddly selective from early on. The less frequent types come in for more attacks. There are very few words in English ending in /-ɑː/ not spelled with final -r (or -re) nor nearly so many ending similarly in /-ɔː/ as those spelled with a central vowel so these tend to acquire extra opprobrium. Most pilloried of all are the few word-internal cases where a derivative suffix tends to acquire non-orthographical /r/ such as drawing, gnawing, sawing, withdrawal, camera-ing which may all be heard occasionally with /r/ from less self-conscious or less usage-anxious GB speakers. The Gimson (1970: 209) comment that many 'have to make a conscious effort to avoid such forms' was no doubt fully justified. One has heard eg withdraw/r/ing from distinguished speakers such as the Harrovian Lord Deedes and eg the hyper-adaptation of warring as /wɔːɪŋ/ from the late Lord Soper. Two of the half dozen or so principal newsreaders on Radio Four might be heard in June 1975 to use regularly withdraw/r/al. In light-hearted style one has heard old Shaw/r/y in reference to Bernard Shaw (from the 'Monty Python' cast). The versions of concertinaing /'kɒnsəˋtiːnərɪŋ/, vanilla-ish /vəˋnɪlərɪʃ/, Goyaesque /'gɔɪə`resk/, and Kafkaesque /'kæfkə`resk/ with /r/ are probably more common than the /r/-less ones, yet the linguistically naïve layman who has his use of them pointed out to him is likely to be aghast and contrite.

10. It is interesting to compare Daniel Jones's developing attitudes to unorthographic r-links over more than half a century. He felt early on that law/r/ of, papa/r/ and and draw/r/ing were simply 'London dialect' (Jones 1914: § 74). He thought of himself at first as never using 'intrusive' /r/ and that he was thereby a member of 'probably a small majority' (Jones 1917; xvii). He later observed that 'I ... occasionally found myself using intrusive /r/' (Jones 1956a: xxv) and he finally came to think that the number of those who do not use 'intrusive' /r/ was (Jones 1956c: § 366) 'probably very small'. His impression, on the other hand, that a 'great many Southern people may now be found who do not use linking r at all' seems quite exaggerated. In fact, he contradicted it in the same paragraph, Jones 1956c §360, which said 'in common expressions like for instance, after all etc the r is still generally sounded, but some omit it even here'. Those must be indeed very few in number today. Ida Ward (1880-1949) wrote in 1939 'There is no doubt that the intrusive r is spreading 'but in I saw it it would not be used by an educated speaker'. This last comment was clearly rather an oldfashioned view when she wrote it: it is totally inapplicable in the 21st century. Its conservatism can be gauged from, among other sources, Lloyd James (1932) where at p. 107 the author, at the time a linguistic adviser to the BBC, referred to 'intrusive' r as 'always with us, safely entrenched, and apparently a firmly established feature of so-called Standard English ... frequently used by statesmen, barristers, actors, clergymen, schoolmasters, and university professors'. However, he was reluctant to condone the usage and a few pages later (pp 117, 118) expressed approval of a then BBC veto on "a sonatar in A". In 1890 in his Primer of Spoken English (p.viii) Henry Sweet had remarked "I know as a fact that most speakers of educated Southern English insert an r in idea(r) of, India(r) office etc.

11. In 1948 J. D. O'Connor consciously offered a "good sprinkling of 'intrusive r's' '' in his New Phonetic Readings recognising specifically that this was 'a departure fully justified by the frequency with which they occur in modern speech at every level' and that it was 'incontrovertible' that it was 'so common as to be normal in present-day English'. The reluctance of some other authors of phonetic readers to follow this excellent example can safely be put down to the triumph of idealism over realism. Now that there is no excuse for phonetic readers not to be accompanied by recordings, they should provide plenty of evidence for the above assertions. This was the case with the writer's People Speaking (1975) which was based on both scripted and unscripted dialogues. These contained items like /'bɑːbr 'edwədz/ Barbara Edwards and a linking /r/ across a hesitation, unprompted by the author and sounding perfectly 'natural' — which was the only request made of the actors who recorded it. Finally, the recommendation for the EFL learner is clear. Failure to make r-link is now abnormal except word-internally and after /ɑː/ and /ɔː/ (as in Shah and saw) given the appropriate prosody, so   normal r-links should be made irrespective of traditional orthography, when prosodic environment would be such that a native GB speaker would make a link. These essential features of prosody are that there should be no pause between the two words involved and that the rate of utterance is normal or average tempo. At a rather markedly rapid rate, elision of the link is not abnormal; at a markedly slow rate of utterance it is also not abnormal.


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PS A recent study of the phenomenon in the speech of British television newsreaders was part of a 2006 thesis by Dr Bente R. Hannisdal of Bergen University available for download as a pdf.