If you hear someone say, “My car needs warshed,” you know you’re in the Midland dialect territory.
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 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 pronunciation “Warshington” 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.
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.
If this is correct, then now we have the question of why the Scots-Irish would have had intrusive R. If it’s something that happens only in specific phonetic environments, it’s hard to tell, because there are so few words that have similar phonetics to “wash,” and which might have been common enough among the Scots-Irish a couple of hundred years ago to be affected by the intrusive R. One possibility is “squash,” and I’ve read some claims that speakers who saw “warsh” also say “squarsh," but I’ve never heard anyone say this myself. There’s also the interjection “gosh,” but the only person I’ve ever heard say “gawrsh” is Goofy, the Disney cartoon character.
One of the dialect features associated with the Scots-Irish is the syntax construction of sentences such as “The car needs fixed,” which most English speakers would say as “The car needs to be fixed." So if you hear someone say, “My car needs warshed,” you know you’re in the Midland dialect territory!
1. Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles. 2006. The Atlas of American English. http://www.atlas.mouton-content.com/. Accessed March 14, 2018.
2. Kelly, John. Oct. 26, 2004. “Catching the Sound of the City.” Washington Post, p. C10. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A62786-2004Oct25.html. Accessed March 14 2018.
3. Johnstone, Barbara. 2005. “Steel Town Speak,” http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/pittsburghese/. Accessed March 14, 2018
4. “Scotch-Irish Americans.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotch-Irish_Americans. Accessed March 15, 2018.
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