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My grandmother always says 'warsh' instead of 'wash'. She's from Northern Ireland. I always wrote this off as an odd thing she would do, but today I was reading that it's actually common in some American accents, which made me think it might be a legitimate pronunciation.

Another thing she does is pronounces towel as 'tawrl'. I'm sure my great grandmother did the same - I'm trying to understand where this r sound comes from? Is it a legitimate pronunciation?

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Any pronunciation is "legitimate" if the scope is limited to the person's idiolect.

My experience of the Northern Irish accent is that it appears to be characterised by less lip movement than other forms of English. Thus towel has no hint of a w in the middle when changing the vowel sound from /ɑ:/ to /ə/. Even if other Englishes reduce the w (it's not the same as weather, for example), in Northern Irish it completely disappears and the tow- part of the word is simply joined to -el, almost without changing the shape of the lips at all.

Forming an r in the middle of such a word requires some lip movement, even in the Northern Irish accent, so it's unlikely that many Ulstermen will insert one. I've never heard it.

That said, the vestigial w might sound like an r, especially if the lower lip moves upward slightly. It's thus possible that someone might mishear this pronunciation and actually insert an r, and for that pronunciation to be passed to descendants.

It's also possible that modern Northern Irish has reduced the w in towel more than might have happened in past generations, so that your great-grandmother and grandmother had more of a Standard English w which could be approximated as r.

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  • I'm aware that this is a wrong inference, but "idiolect" sounds like it's a pejorative jab at dialects (as if they're only used by idiots) :)
    – Flater
    Sep 21, 2017 at 12:01
  • Not sure about Irish, but this definitely happens with New Jersey accents.
    – Kevin
    Sep 21, 2017 at 19:33

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