Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
I am from Iowa City, a land where everyone supposedly speaks like they’re on the six o’clock news. I’d always noticed my grandparents, (Wellman residents) pronounced the words “Wash” and “Washington,” a little odd, putting an r-sound after the vowel, pronounced, “Warsh.” I never put much thought into it, until around a year ago when I started working in the county.
Suddenly, the unusual pronunciation went from a quirky thing my relatives did to a trend I could observe in about a fifth of the people I spoke to in “Warshington County.”
Why does that happen? It’s a difficult question to answer. Linguistics is a notoriously tedious field of study, more akin to philosophy than evidence-based science. That said, the research does offer a few clues.
For one: there’s a passable biological explanation for why the intrusive R happens. Making the “sh” sound right after a vowel requires the tongue to curl a bit, and, if curled in just the right way, that produces an R-sound. The habit of curling the tongue that way is regional for the same reason any other accent is: people learn speech by hearing it, so they sound like the people they hear.
The better question, then, is why did people start doing that in the first place? Again, this is the point where linguistic study generally stops being helpful, but there are some clues.
For one thing, intrusive Rs are about a dime a dozen in European English accents. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was infamously nicknamed Laura Norder, for her insertion of the R-sound into the phrase “law and order.”
They’re also fairly common in Pennsylvania. In her 2013 book, “Pittsburgh Speech and Pittsburghese,” Linguist Barbara Johnstone attributed that trend to Scotch-Irish settlers, who comprised much of the city’s early immigration. where she noted that the speech pattern moved with them as they spread across the country.
“Epenthetic /r/ was once fairly widespread in the U.S. Midwest and the South, but it is becoming less common, as it seems to be in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well,” she wrote.
As an aside, I think Johnstone is right about the habit fading. I can’t recall every hearing someone younger than 50 utter the words “Alls I brought,” and I’d bet money I’ve never heard someone under 40 call it a “warshing machine.” It’s worth noting that while my grandparents use the intrusive R, neither my dad nor my uncles, who would’ve all grown up hearing it pronounced “warsh,” say it that way. The trend seems to have disappeared over a single generation.
Fading regional accents are, in fact, a much-discussed topic by linguistics, but it’s not the question I came to answer. For the moment, the field of linguistics had nothing left to offer me.
The rabbit hole takes a turn, then, toward human geography.
While it’s not a scientific observation, mentions of “warsh” I could find on social media tended to come from as far north as central Iowa and as far south and west as Texas. If you were to draw a line between the states, and then form a triangle with the city of Pittsburgh as the third point, you’d have the rough area that dialectologists call the Midlands Region.
The midland dialect is easy to recognize, once you know what to listen for. Midlanders tend to make higher-pitched sounds for the letter “A” before nasal consonants than before other consonants, for example. The different vowel sounds for the words “fan” and “fact” are not a universal habit, but part of the midland accent, although the practice is shared by plenty of other regional accents.
Midland grammatical tendencies also set the region apart. Southeast Iowans, for example, have a tendency to drop participles after the verb “need,” i.e., “Those dishes need cleaned,” or “The dog needs walked.” They tend to pluralize the word “all” despite the result being longer and less grammatically correct, as in, “Alls I could say was thank you.” These speech habits are easy to find in Washington, for example, but much less common even as close as Iowa City.
With regional data in mind, the rabbit hole goes deeper, to demographic data. This is where the search finally strikes gold.
Census projections from 2012 suggest that people of Scotch-Irish descent are today largely settled across the midland region. They have higher concentrations in the Appalachians, where they had an even stronger impact on the dialect, resulting in the region’s characteristic accent that’s easy to recognize today.
Those census projections also show above average concentrations of Scotch-Irish heritage around Southeast Iowa. While a few areas, like Jefferson County (Iowa) and Putnam County (Missouri,) have higher densities, the majority of counties come in only moderately above average, as does most of Midlands region.
Taken along with Johnstone’s assertion, a clearer picture comes to light. The “Warshington R” likely started with Scotch-Irish immigrants that flocked to Pennsylvania, who took it with them as they spread out across the country over the generations.
The intrusive R didn’t develop in areas with especially high Scotch-Irish populations, where the more common Scotch-Irish speech influenced the entire regional accent in a big way, resulting in the distinct Appalachian accent we so easily recognize today.
But for areas with only slightly above-average Scotch-Irish concentration, (I.e. the entire Midlands region) the effect would’ve been more subtle, creating fragments of a dialect that only jump out in those informal — and grammatically tortured — sentences like “Alls I can think is how bad my car needs warshed.”