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Why Do People Say 'Warsh' Instead of 'Wash'?

If you hear someone say, “My car needs warshed,” you know you’re in the Midland dialect territory.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty ,
April 19, 2018

Why do people say 'warsh' instead of 'wash'?

A listener named Matt wants to know why some speakers of American English pronounce the word “wash” as “warsh.” This pronunciation is sometimes called the “intrusive R,” and like our recent episode on the “pin”/“pen" merger and “cot”/“caught” merger, this question has to do with dialects of American English. 

The intrusive R in “warsh” is most commonly associated with a dialect of American English known as the Midland dialect. The exact boundaries of the Midland dialect region vary from study to study, but all the analyses agree that covers most of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, as well as parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. This is the region proposed in the “Atlas of North American English" by William Labov, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. (1)  Earlier studies have the region extending into western Pennsylvania, and the earliest ones have it covering all of Pennsylvania, plus some of Maryland and Virginia. Intrusive R can be found in all those areas. A “Washington Post" columnist in 2004 even wrote about hearing the pronunciationWarshington” on a regular basis where he lived and worked. (2) Even so, it may be dying out. In some places, such as Missouri and western Pennsylvania, it tends to be used more by older speakers, and I’ve seen comments from speakers of Midland American English who don’t say “warsh,” and don’t know anyone who does. 

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The linguist Barbara Johnstone at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is the authority on Pennsylvania English, and she has noted that intrusive R can be heard in the same regions of the country that have language features that we know came from Scots-Irish settlers. (3) The Scots-Irish were a group of Protestants who migrated to Ireland from England and Scotland for greater religious freedom in the 1600s. When that didn’t work, their descendants migrated again to the American colonies in the 1700s. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants settled in regions that are now part of the Midland dialect region, as well as more southern areas, such as Appalachia. (4) So by association, we can guess that intrusive R also came from Scots-Irish English, but it’s not certain. 

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