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7 February 2011
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Language change
One word used out of context in the U.K. that I find very annoying is brilliant. When I lived in England the word meant shining or glittering. It would be a very dull language though if it didn't change with time. Veronica, Canada
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Page 3 of 3
Semantic change
Intrusive 'R'

Change in Pronunciation
A rogue 'r' demonstrates how rules of pronunciation can change.

"Why do reporters and news readers say 'lore' for 'law' and 'sore' for 'saw' etc? It never used to happen."

Web-reader Jean O'Rourke has spotted a bit of language change in action. Where words like saw and idea come before a vowel, there's an increasing tendency among speakers of British English to insert an 'r' sound, so that law and order becomes law-r and order and china animals becomes china-r animals. Linguists call this 'intrusive r' because the 'r' was never historically part of the word.

It's normal for sounds to be pronounced differently depending on where they sit in relation to other sounds. Try saying 'leek' and 'bull' out loud. Now pause as you pronounce the 'l' sound in each, and notice how your tongue is in a different position, and how different the two sound. (Incidentally, if you try swapping the 'l's, you'll find that your new 'leek' sounds a bit Russian, while 'bull' sounds like Michael Howard.)

"Imagine writing without leaving gaps between letters or words - speech is like that!"

Differences in sound don't just apply within words. That's because we don't. Talk. In. Individual. Words. - we talk in a stream of virtually unbroken sound. If you look at a representation of your speech as a wave, you'll find the only gaps are during the split-seconds you shut your vocal tract off (e.g. by closing your lips) in sounds like 'p' and 't'.

Imagine writing without leaving gaps between letters or words - speech is like that! As a result, just as the 'eek' affects the 'l' in leek, so 'and' might affect the 'aw' in law and order.

We have a natural tendency to break up vowel clusters where possible - both in English and across languages in general. Most people say 'I-y-am' or 'two-w-up, two down' or 'an apple' in everyday speech without raising eyebrows. Even if you drop an 'h' at the beginning of a word, it's normal to change a preceding 'a' to 'an' (e.g. 'an 'orrible story' or 'an 'ippopotamus'), so you're not stuck with an awkward vowel cluster.

It's perfectly normal to add an 'r' to break up the vowels in 'flour and water' or 'the doctor asked'. People tend to do this whether they would pronounce the 'r' in 'flour' or 'doctor' elsewhere or not. This is called 'linking r'.

The intrusive r is probably the result of people generalising the linking-r principle so that it fits other cases that are analogous in terms of sound. Rather than having a rule that says Drop the 'r' in words like 'more' and 'here' anywhere except before vowels, people who use intrusive r have a new rule which says Words that end in certain vowels like 'doctor' and 'saw' need an extra 'r' before vowels. The new rule applies in more instances than the old one, hence a subtle change in what people say and what we hear around us.

Further Reading
An Introduction to English Phonology by April McMahon


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