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My grandmother, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, pronounced wash and Washington with an intrusive R: “warsh” and “Warshington.” Where does the intrusive R come from in that dialect? It doesn’t seem to be produced by the same mechanism that changes law and order to “lawr and order” in non-rhotic dialects (plus, my grandmother’s dialect was rhotic, if I recall correctly).

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Would this be the same R that makes an arse out of ass? – terdon Mar 27 '14 at 3:40
@terdon Nope, arse and ass surprisingly have different etymology to explain the difference! – Bradd Szonye Mar 27 '14 at 3:43
Just to clarify, I don't recall my grandmother using intrusive R in words like law and idea, just wash. But she’s been gone for several years, so I can’t double check. – Bradd Szonye Mar 27 '14 at 3:47
@terdon Or even mainstream “mispronunciation” like iron/iorn. I'll never understand why people get upset over things like ask/aks (which actually has legit English etymology) while maintaining a blind spot for words like iron/iorn. – Bradd Szonye Mar 27 '14 at 4:56
My grandmother (born and raised on Prince Edward Island) used 'warsh.' Lots of Scottish/Irish immigrants settled in that area. – Shaka Jun 27 at 4:35

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

According to John Kelly of the Washington Post (Catching the Sounds of the City), he claims:

"warsh" is the predominant characteristic of what linguists call America's midland accent. The accent can be found in the swath of the country that extends west from Washington, taking in Maryland; southern Pennsylvania; West Virginia; parts of Virginia; southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; most of Missouri; and Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, much of Kansas and west Texas.

With the help of Barbara Johnstone, of Carnegie Mellon University, he traces it back to Scotch-Irish immigrants at least a couple hundred years ago.

Midland English is described as "firmly rhotic", where rhotic* (of or pertaining to a dialect of English in which the r is pronounced at the end of a syllable or before a consonant).

Barbara Johnstone, in an interview covered by the article Steel Speak said this:

But some features of the accent of southwestern Pennsylvania are geographically distributed in the same way—in the Pittsburgh area and to the west and the south— as are words and grammatical structures we know are Scotch-Irish in origin. This suggests that these may be older features that spread with the early settlers. One of these is the use of an r sound in the word wash, so that it sounds something like worsh.

(There's lots more linguistic trivia in that interview, and I think you'll find it interesting.)

*You may recall my mentioning rhoticity in reference to Why do British Singers Sound American? in response to this question. In that article, the author states that most dialects of England drop their Rs. Go figure, but that's not Scotch-Irish either.

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Do we have any independent confirmation that "warsh" was used in Scotch-Irish? – Peter Shor Mar 27 '14 at 4:06
And here is another "warsh" from West Somerset. It might be a past linguistic quirk which has only left one trace on the language, kind of like the former dialectical variant British pronunciation of "er", which has persisted in England in clerk and Berkeley, but appears only in sergeant in the U.S. The two references I found contain pretty good descriptions of the West Somerset dialect, so you might figure it out by reading them. – Peter Shor Mar 27 '14 at 4:21
@PeterShor - You may have something there. I may send an email off to Prof. Johnstone and ask her about it. She seems to be pretty enthusiastic about the subject, so maybe I'll receive a reply. If I do that' I'll also ask her about independent research from hers that addresses this. If I hear form her, I'll post it here. – Canis Lupus Mar 27 '14 at 4:30
@PeterShor - Dr. Johnstone replied with a less certain answer about Scotch-Irish origin than the cites I gave above would indicate. She referred me to a colleague, Dr. Michael Montgomery. I'll update if I hear from him. – Canis Lupus Mar 27 '14 at 17:02
Barbara Johnstone is a former student of mine at the University of Michigan, and currently she knows more about English in Pennsylvania than anybody else. FWIW, I grew up (in DeKalb, IL) saying /worʃ, worʃklɔθ, worʃɪŋ/, and /worʃɪŋtən/. As well as /ɡarʃ/ 'gosh', the interjection, which hasn't been mentioned here yet. No other intrusive /r/'s. – John Lawler May 26 at 23:11

Warsh was used frequently in Quyon and Mayo, West Quebec for at least two generations of Irish Canadians. My father and his siblings spoke what I though was simply bad English, however I now realize that it was an accent transported from Ireland (a la The Great Famine). They also said 'he's an arse', 'Warshington' and 'that'd be a fine how-do-you-do'. Clear, useful and to the point. I hope that dialect is still alive and kicking arse somewhere !

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