That’s the Idear: Intrusive ‘R’

Letter RGenerations of Americans have puzzled over the British tendency to add ‘r’s where (it seems to us) ‘r’s don’t belong.  This can be found in such phrases as “an idear of it,” “pastar and sauce,” and  “sawr and conquered.”  Termed r insertion (or intrusive r), this feature impacts many non-rhotic (r-less) accents.  And as we’ll discuss shortly, the phenomena has given birth to an even more unusual feature, which might be termed the hypercorrective intrusive r.

R insertion, as strange as it sounds to us r-pronouncers, is in fact guided by simple, logical rules.  For someone from London, the r pronounced in “bitter end” is no different from the r pronounced in “pastar and sauce.”  Both follow the rule that when a schwa occurs at the end of a word, and the next word begins with a vowel, r makes an appearance*.  This is also true of /ɑ:/ words (the “Shahr of Iran” follows the same rule as “car and driver”) and /ɔ:/ words (“Drawr open” is treated no differently than “Drawer open”).

Really, then, for people with r-inserting accents there is no r after vowels, even if an r appears in the spelling. Rather, there is a set of rules that dictates that /r/ appears in between vowels in certain environments.

Anyway, this brings us to the point of today’s post, the related phenomenon of hypercorrective intrusive r.  This is a largely American peculiarity whereby someone with a traditionally non-rhotic accent (as found in New York City and New England) hypercorrects and pronounces r regardless of whether it precedes a vowel.  Hence we get “I’ve got no idear what to wear!” and “He liked to drawr cats.”

I’m under the impression that the hypercorrective intrusive r is on the wane.  At the risk of stereotyping, I’ve mostly heard it among speakers over fifty from Long Island or working-class areas around Greater Boston.  It strikes me as a by-product of the dialect levelling that occurred in America after World War II, and hence a temporary product of that transition.

Mysterious to me, though, is why this levelling only seems to have produced the intrusive r phenomenon in the Northern U.S.  The American South, after all, has several non-rhotic accents that drop their r’s more extremely than New Yorkers or Bostonians.  In older Southern dialects, all r’s are dropped after vowels, in positions like that of “very” ([ve.i]) and “better off” ([beɾə ɔf]).  In essence, there never was a linking r in those accents.

Still, as non-rhoticity has receded in the South, hypercorrective intrusive r doesn’t seem to have occurred**.  The region adopted rhotic accents with a fairly effortless transition.  The same is true of African American Vernacular English.  Many AAVE speakers have transitioned to rhoticity, and yet I’ve never met an AAVE speaker who exhibits any type of intrusive r.

Why does this feature only impact certain types of accents?

*Well, really, it’s before a morpheme boundary: hence “drawring.”

**At least I don’t think it has: feel free to correct this assertion if there have indeed been Southern r-inserters.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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40 Responses to That’s the Idear: Intrusive ‘R’

  1. Lu says:

    I grew up in coastal VA, but there’s not a huge southern accent there because of the military presence. Some of the older generation had very pronounced accents, but other than that, it’s a pretty mild mid-Atlantic sound. I do remember having a teacher who would say “idear” all the time. I can’t remember where she was from, but cruel students that we were, would always giggle a little when she said it because it sounded so strange to us. She definitely wasn’t British, but I’m not sure what part of the US she was from.

  2. AW says:

    Linking-R and Intrusive-R are really the same phenomenon, non-rhotics have either both (as in England and New England) or neither (as in the Southern US). You can’t have one and not the other.

    The reason is: if ‘saw’ and ‘soar’ are pronounced the same way, then ‘sawing’ and ‘soaring’ must be as well, unless you are a really careful speaker.

    (In non-rhotic accents there is NO underlying ‘r’. The rule is that if [ɑ:], [ɔ:], [ə] or [ɜ:] is followed by another vowel, then r is inserted, regardless of whether there is an r in the spelling. In cockney this is extended to the [æ:] used in MOUTH words!!)

    • trawicks says:

      I updated the post to use the phrase “hypercorrective intrusive r” to avoid confusion. I actually really dislike the use of “intrusive,” because as you mention, this is a consistent rule, not just some incorrect quirk of speech. “Intrusive” implies that something is where it shouldn’t belong: but even those without the feature usually have some type of sound that serves the same function (for Americans, it’s typically a glottal stop).

      Cockney intrusive r after MOUTH is indeed one of the more interesting variants of this phenomenon. I’ve never actually heard anyone use it, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were less common these days. Still searching for an example of that one!

  3. Peter S. says:

    In Boston and New York, you also sometimes find intrusive r’s in “sawr him” and “sawr her”, where the “h” is either dropped or barely pronounced.

  4. Pedro Alvarez says:

    There is a reason why intrusive r occurs after schwa before a word that begins with a vowel.

    front vowel + unstressed vowel > ‘intrusive’ glide /j/
    back vowel + unstressed vowel > ‘intrusive’ glide /w/
    central vowel + unstressed vowel > intrusive /r/ or a glottal stop or no intrusive at all–depending on the dialect.

  5. Frank says:

    Well, I actually live in the South (Charleston, South Carolina to be specific) and I have heard what you call a “hypercorrective intrusive r”. It was from an AAVE speaker. He said “commer” for “comma” and there was no word beginning with a vowel after it. So sometimes it helps to actually live in the place you’re talking about.

    I also heard a lady from Vermont who would say “idear” for “idea” no matter where the word occurred in the sentence. And being from Burlington, she was a completely rhotic speaker.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s interesting about Burlington–I don’t believe the city has a recent history of non-rhoticity, at least for the past hundred years (if you look at really old dialect maps, they still don’t indicate that non-rhoticity goes any further west than Montpelier or so).

      As I suggest in my footnote, I can’t say with any confidence that this feature is completely unheard of in the South. But while I can think of any number of New Yorkers or New Englanders who I’ve encountered with this feature, I’ve never spoken to an AAVE speaker or a Southerner from a non-rhotic region who does this. Which should perhaps be part of a broader discussion as to why there wasn’t a linking r in the South in the first place. It’s quite unusual in that regard.

  6. Nick says:

    An interesting contrast is French, which has what you might call an “intrusive T”. T is probably the most common silent letter for them, but it gets sounded when the next word starts with a vowel e.g. “avait-il”. But they’re much more aware of what’s going on with vowels so they write in the intrusive Ts, even though they have no semantic value whatsoever e.g. “a-t-il”.
    I might start doing that with my Rs in English!

  7. Lane Greene says:

    Ben, you may not like the name “intrusive”, but I quite like the nickname for “hypercorrective intrusive R” suggested by Positive Anymore: “intrusive intrusive R”. It’s intrusive R where intrusive R doesn’t belong…

    • trawicks says:

      I quite like that too! The “intrusive intrusive r” indeed might be called ‘”intrusive,” because the hypercorrection has yet to solidify into a phonemic rule.

  8. AL says:

    As a transplant to Boston (coming from Maryland) this was one of the most striking elements that I noticed when I moved here. Of course not everyone in the Boston area speaks non-rhotically, but some of my coworkers (in Waltham) would say things like drawring, fohmular (formula), and idear.

    In fact it was my exposure to these dialects which partly made me so obsessed with dialects, and hence a reader of this blog. 🙂 I never used to pay attention to these things, but now I can’t help but listen for variations in pronunciation when I hear people talk!

  9. Tom V says:

    I grew up in southern North Carolina and never heard an intrusive “r” until JFK started running for president.
    I’m in Oklahoma now, and have met several people who add not an “r”, but an “l” to “idea”. I don’t know whether this is word confusion–idea/ideal, or a phonetic thing.

  10. jefusan says:

    I spent my high school years in Delaware. In the Mid-Atlantic accent of Southern NJ, Southeastern PA, Delaware and Maryland, you can sometimes hear an intrusive “l” instead of an intrusive “r.” The most common example is when someone says, “I saw it” like “I sawl it.”

  11. IVV says:

    Would someone be able to explain “warsh” to me? That was a feature only of older white (Midland, I believe) speakers in the San Joaquin Valley back in the 80s. All the children would laugh at it: “There’s no ‘r’ in ‘wash’!”

    For a while I thought it might be a mishearing of a different vowel–like how Americans might characterize the German /ö/ as a rhotic vowel–but given the source accent’s rhoticity, I’m quite sure it is rhotic.

    • Julie says:

      Warsh…that’s a Midwestern thing, and it seems that inland California had a lot of immigration from the Midwest between the 1870s and 1920s. Before the San Joaquin Valley accents were mostly (not completely!) replaced by the Dust Bowl accents. I doubt you can find anyone who still says that now, though.

      • Ellen K. says:

        But then the next question is, why do some people in the Midwest say “warsh”, and which people (regionally and otherwise) in the Midwest is it who say that? It’s certainly not all of us (and the Midwest isn’t even a linguistic region… the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, for one, splits the Midwest).

        • IVV says:

          I’m positive it’s Midland.

          In the San Joaquin Valley, one group of people present were (rather disparagingly called) the “Okies,” as in people from Oklahoma. They were settlers from the Dust Bowl migration. Even fifty-plus years after their integration into the area, there was still some clear difference in sounds created. I think this is the main reason why you’ve got the “ammond” and “all-mond” speakers I spoke about earlier. The first two “ammond” speakers were natives, probably with families having been there for over 100 years. The “all-mond” speaker still has clear Midland influences (that kinda-Southern kinda-Midwest kinda-Western) in his dialect.

        • Ellen K. says:

          But that’s still not specific enough. Which midland speakers? We don’t all speak like that. Even if I’m not a true Midland speaker, the area I live in is, and I’d’ve noticed if everyone around me was saying warsh instead of wash. So who are these people who say wash?

          And there is also still the why question.

        • m.m. says:

          I too am under the impression that Epenthetic /ɹ/ is something that happens mostly in midlands dialects, albeit mostly in older speakers from my understanding.

          Maybe they switch to a more standard register when they speak to you, the foreigner? xD

        • Ellen K. says:

          @mm, no, I’m not a “foreigner”. My background is parents from Chicago, grew up in the St. Louis area, now live in the Kansas City area.

          Many/most people around here have no need to ever “switch to a more standard register” because their normal speech is pretty standard.

          I’m not saying people in the Midlands don’t saw warsh. I’m saying it’s not everyone in the whole area.

        • Rodger C says:

          As for why, someone elsewhere has pointed out that this /r/ seems to be inserted wherever a rounded mid-height vowel is followed by the palatal fricative, e.g. warsh, squarsh, etc. The /r/ combines features of the sounds adjacent to it.

          As for its distribution, I can only say it seems to be receding from wherever it started out, probably due to its being perceived as “hick-like.” (How many Hollywood-movie farmers have you heard exclaiming “Gorsh!”)

        • Julie says:

          Ellen K: I hope you didn’t think I meant that all Midwesterners say “warsh.” I realize now that I left myself open to that interpretation. In fact, I was wondering whether that accent was extinct by now.

    • IVV says:

      Makes sense to me! It was just interesting to see an accent that quite clearly was delineated by generation so clearly, growing up.

      • Abby B says:

        I know that this is a late post, but just to add some fog into the already foggy circumstances surrounding warshing — in Warshington, DC and Baltimore that is still alive and well, it is not only present and accounted for in the midwest. In the state of Maryland this r insertion happens everywhere from the ocean up to Western Maryland and it’s not only with the older speakers, but also with many of the children in the area, clearly picking it up from adults around them.

  12. m.m. says:

    So, if, say, a rhotic amE speaker hears a non-rhotic brE speaker utter /ˈdɑːlɛk/, and then, appropriating it to their rhotic accent, produces /ˈdɑrlɛk/, is it intrusive R??

  13. Mark Paris says:

    A friend who is almost exactly the same age and me (61) and who was born and grew up in rhotic northwest Georgia, as I did, says “idear.” Other than his sister (now my wife “Leahr”), I don’t know of anyone else in this area who does that. As far as I know, his parents also were born in this area.

    An aside: I was listening to a British word game on public radio a few years ago. The question had to do with giving two words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. The two words in question were “gnaw” and “nor.” It took me a moment to process that.

  14. Rodger C says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the tendency of American radio announcers to refer to the British-Nigerian singer Sade as /ʃɑɹˈdeɪ/, presumably because her publicists’ packet, written by non-rhotic speakers, instructs them to say “Shar-day.”

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  16. Gene says:

    “I’m positive it’s Midland.

    In the San Joaquin Valley, one group of people present were (rather disparagingly called) the “Okies,” as in people from Oklahoma. They were settlers from the Dust Bowl migration. Even fifty-plus years after their integration into the area, there was still some clear difference in sounds created. I think this is the main reason why you’ve got the “ammond” and “all-mond” speakers I spoke about earlier. The first two “ammond” speakers were natives, probably with families having been there for over 100 years. The “all-mond” speaker still has clear Midland influences (that kinda-Southern kinda-Midwest kinda-Western) in his dialect.”

    I grew up in the Stockton/French Camp area in the San Joaquin Valley. My family were immigrants from the Azore Islands and Michigan. My family has been in the San Joaquin Valley since the middle 1800’s/ Not from Oklahoma or Texas. We Always pronounced almond “ahhmond” and Apricot .(long A) The inside joke was if you grow um you call um ahhmonds..Quite frankly that seems to be the case. Of course if it is the candy bar Almond Joy then the Almond is pronounced with the L sound. We do say warsh or waash . I am often teased by my So-Cal friends or Bay Area friends about what they call my “Valley Accent” I can clean it up when I choose but will forever say almond the correct way Ahhhhhmond. Some use to say its almond til you knock the L out of it when we would harvest them in the fall. We had a small ahhmond,walnut and Apricot orchard. With the influx of transplants from other places things are changing. By the way it has nothing to do with education or social status.

    • The word Almond is of Arabic origin. Ammond would be correct and has nothing to do with Okies or Arkies or prune pickers.

      Algebra is also from Arabic– Al ja bar

      • dw says:

        The normally reliable Etymoline says that “almond” ultimately comes from from Greek amygdalos “of unknown, perhaps Semitic, origin”. The excrescent L comes from Spanish almendra “which got it via confusion with the Arabic definite article al-, which formed the beginnings of many Spanish words”.

  17. dw says:

    Today “PBS NewsHour” featured a guest with a really weird combination of rhoticity and intrusive R. I presume that he is a non-native speaker who first learned AmE and then overlaid it with intrusive R (he appears to be currently working in Britain).

  18. Victor Hugenay says:

    What’s also interesting to note is that Viktor Mayer-Schonberger reveals some degree of Canadian raising in words like “about”.

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  20. James Giangola says:

    I am convinced that [r] is dropped between vowels in Southern speech and also in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a/k/a “Ebonics,” as a reflex of the same practice in Yoruba, a language of Nigeria. After all, who took care of all those Caucasian children while the adults were sipping their mint juleps?

    The role of Yoruba in Brazil is undeniable and widely acknowledged. It is said that Yoruba has exerted an influence on Standard Brazilian Portuguese owing to the role played by *mucamas* (the enslaved African females who took care of the slave owner’s children)…so much so that one can easily argue that Standard Brazilian Portuguese is actually a language that, nowadays, has undergone decreolization.

    Yoruba is still used today as the liturgical language of *candomblé*, the Afro-Brazilian religion brought from Nigeria. Yoruba is to *candomblé* as Latin is to Catholicism. Yoruba vowel harmony is nearly identical to the same phonological pattern in the Brazilian state of Bahia, the state that has the highest concentration of Afro-Brazilians in that country. The reason why African languages have not influenced American English to the same degree as in Brazil is because, unlike the Portuguese who colonized Brazil, the English separated slaves who spoke the same language, even ripping apart families. expressly to impede communication, which effectively extinguished what could have been a rich cultural and linguistic legacy in the U.S. I believe intervocalic [r]-deletion in Southern speech is a rare and precious vestige of West African language in American history … A’ight? ( < A'right < Alright < All right.)

  21. Griff says:

    I’ve heard “very” pronounced [vei] by a Mississipian in his 20’s who didn’t drop the R from any other words as far as I could tell. I just thought that was interesting 🙂

    • Wanda Brister says:

      My grandparents and extended family were from northeast through southwest Mississippi. One grandmother never said or spelled my name correctly (“Wander” for “Wanda”). My cousin said “Nathern for Nathan,” “termater” for “tomato,” and had what sounded to me a soft w in “very,” almost like a speech impediment. This same cousin was a high school principal and said at one time he was told that his area (Tupelo) is “a perfectly preserved Shakespearean accent.” How this is possible, I do not know, but when I see portrayals of servants in British shows, it sounds almost like the same speech patterns with a different accent to my ears. I am a professional teacher of operatic singers and teach non-rhotic diction to my students with glottal clarification. I have never received a complaint about their diction this side the pond.

  22. Glory Be says:

    How should the name “Sade” be pronounced?

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