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  • The American Intrusive L
  • Bryan Gick

The well-known sandhi phenomenon known as intrusive r has been one of the longest-standing problems in English phonology. Recent work has brought to light a uniquely American contribution to this discussion: the intrusive l (as in draw[l]ing for drawing and bra[l] is for bra is in southern Pennsylvania, compared to draw[r]ing and bra[r] is, respectively, in British Received Pronunciation [RP]). In both instances of intrusion, a historically unattested liquid consonant (r or l) intervenes in the hiatus between a morpheme-final nonhigh vowel and a following vowel, either across or within words. Not surprisingly, this process interacts crucially with the well-known cases of /r/-vocalization (e.g., Kurath and McDavid 1961; Labov 1966; Labov, Yaeger, and Steiner 1972; Fowler 1986) and /l/-vocalization (e.g., Ash 1982a, 1982b), which have been identified as important markers of sociolinguistic stratification in New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. However, previous discussion of the intrusive l (Gick 1999) has focused primarily on its phonological implications, with almost no attempt to describe its geographic, dialectal, and sociolinguistic context. This study marks such an attempt. In particular, it argues that the intrusive l is an instance of phonological change in progress.

Descriptively, the intrusive l parallels the intrusive r in many respects. Intrusive r may be viewed simplistically as the extension by analogy of a historically attested final /r/ to words historically ending in a vowel (generally this applies only to the set of non-glide-final vowels: /ə, a, ɔ). Thus, in dialects with intrusive r, normally word-final r and zero alternate, depending on whether the following word is vowel-initial, as in (1). This is generally known as LINKING and will be discussed in more detail below.

1. R ~ Ø alternation in historically r -final words (e.g., E Mass.)

  1. a. tuner [tunə] → tuner is [tunər ız]

  2. b. spar [spa: ] → spar is [spar ız]

  3. c. pore [pɔ:] → pore is [pOr ız]

Likewise, in some dialects, this process has extended to all words ending in /a/, /ɔ/, and /ə/, as shown in (2). This is commonly known as INTRUSION. [End Page 167]

2. R ~ Ø alternation in historically vowel-final words (e.g., E Mass.)

  1. a. tuna [tunə] → tuna is [tunər ız]

  2. b. spa [spa: ] → spa is [spar ız]

  3. c. paw [pɔ: ] → paw is [pɔr ız]

In most dialects, this alternation never occurs following other vowels. For example, one could never say *The bee[r] is buzzing or *I won't allow[r] it (though see below for discussion of an intrusive l pattern following the diphthong /aw/).

As with intrusive r, dialects with intrusive l can show an alternation between word-final /l/ and zero, most commonly following the vowel /ɔ, as shown in (3).

3. L ~ Ø alternation in historically l-final words (e.g., SE Pa.)

Paul [pɔ: ] → Paul is [pɔl ız]

As with the r in (2) above, some dialects may extend l intrusion to all words ending in the vowel /ɔ, as in (4):

4. L ~ Ø alternation in historically vowel-final words (e.g., SE Pa.) paw [pɔ:] → paw is [pɔl ız]

The intrusive l interacts with a large number of other phonological processes in dialects of English, including vocalization, /a/-/ɔ merger, and others. This article argues that the intrusive l is currently at an earlier stage in its development than the intrusive r.

Intrusive R and L: Stages of Development

Linguists have long been interested in intrusive r for a variety of reasons. The importance of early descriptions of the phenomenon as it appeared in early British RP, such as that provided by Jones (1917), will be discussed later in this paper. Intrusive r was first recognized as relevant to phonological theory by a group composed mostly of American Structuralists, who identified it as bearing crucially on contemporary discussions of the phonemicization of low vowels and glides (Bloomfield 1935; Trager 1943; Whorf 1943; Swadesh 1947). Although somewhat later, and with a more dialectological focus, Kurath's (1964) analysis should also be included in this category. Interest was renewed by the Generativists and following generations, beginning with Kahn's (1976) dissertation on syllable structure and continuing to the...


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pp. 167-183
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Archived 2005
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