If you like The Golden Girls, you are familiar with Sophia Petrillo (if you don’t like the Golden Girls, well, don’t get me started). She is a Sicilian-American who lived in Brooklyn for most of her life, and has what we could call a “typical New York accent” – at least for someone of her generation. There are many interesting features in this New York accent, but today I’m going to focus on its “non-rhoticity”, a technical term for “r-lessness” or “r-dropping”, meaning that the R sound is dropped at the end of a syllable. In this clip, you can hear this feature in Sophia’s pronunciation of spectacular, gentler, Barbara, George and where, starting at the 1:47 minute mark.
To go into specifics, Sophia drops her syllable-final Rs when another consonant follows (Barbara, George, where was) and when a pause follows (spectacular, forever).
This kind of non-rhoticity is nothing new to anyone familiar with English, Welsh, Australian and New Zealand accents, as well as the very notorious examples of New York and Boston in America (though they are far from being the only non-rhotic accents in the country – Blanche Deveraux from the Golden Girls hails from Georgia, and is also non-rhotic, although her non-rhoticity is slightly different from Sophia’s).
What is a little more striking, though, is Sophia’s pronunciation of the phrase I saw a thousand points of light with an R at the end of saw, making it sound to me like I sore a thousand points of light. Why does Sophia “insert” an R sound at the end of saw, which has no R in its spelling, and does not have an R sound in rhotic (r-pronouncing) accents?
The answer begins to reveal itself if we keep listening and get to when she says so I could watch them light up whenever I wanted. In this phrase, she does not drop the R in whenever. This is because in most types of non-rhotic accents, while R is dropped when another consonant or a pause follows, it is not dropped when a vowel follows it. So, the reason Sophia does not drop the R in whenever I wanted is that the R is followed by the diphthong in I. This phenomenon goes by the technical name of “linking R”.
However, this still doesn’t answer the question of why she “adds” an R to saw in I saw a thousand points of light. The next word starts with a vowel, but saw has no R to drop or preserve to begin with, right?
Here’s the thing: while “r-dropping” can seem to someone with a rhotic accent like a process that is applied to words to “delete” the R in certain circumstances, that’s not exactly what it is. In non-rhotic speakers’ “mental lexicon” – roughly speaking, the “wordlist” in the “language” part of their brain that stores the words they are familiar with, use and understand – those words have no R sound. They only know that those words “have an R” because of the spelling (as in the way that speakers with rhotic accents know that there is a B in debt), and in some cases, because they know people with rhotic accents pronounce them with an R sound. In brief, for non-rhotic speakers, those words do not have an R any more than debt has a B or receipt a P.
So, while we may think of r-dropping as a pronunciation rule applied to words “with R”, and of “linking R” as an exception to the r-dropping rule (or an “r-preserving” rule), it is really an “r-adding” rule. So, when Sophia’s speaking, she’s not so much dropping the R in spectacular – that’s just the way that word sounds like in her accent – and she’s not so much preserving the R in whenever I wanted – she’s adding that R because that’s what happens when a vowel at the end of a syllable (such as the schwa* at the end of her r-less whenever) is followed by another vowel – the one in I.
The same thing happens in I saw a thousand points of light. The AW vowel in saw is followed by the vowel in a – so she applies the “linking R” rule and adds an R.
When “linking R” is applied in this way, adding an R at the end of a word which did not historically have an R sound (reflected in the fact that there is no R in its spelling), this linking R is sometimes called “intrusive R”. However, as Geoff Lindsey puts it in his brilliant blog post on the subject of linking and “intrusive” R, it doesn’t help much to give two different names to what is essentially the same linking R phenomenon. Calling it “intrusive” R is a bit of a rhotic-centric putdown of a case of linking R that doesn’t happen to coincide with the traditional spelling or with rhotic pronunciations.
Some people might say all this variety is problematic and it would be easier if people all spoke the same way. Me, I shudder at the very idear of it.
* The vowel called schwa is the reduced “undefined” vowel in comma, about and, in non-rhotic accents, banker.