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John Kelly's Washington

Catching the Sound of the City

By John Kelly
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page C10

Arrrrrr, mateys. Gather round me if ye dare.

What am I, a pirate all of a sudden? No, it's just my way of announcing that today's column is brought to you by the letter R, or, more correctly, the sound of the letter R.

And more specifically still, the sound of the letter R in the word "Washington."

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The more observant among you will notice that "Washington" has no R in it. But that doesn't stop people from inserting one, creating the word "Warshington."

I bring this up because in a column this month about how newcomers often mispronounce local place names, Gregory Milas of Alexandria said that what really rubbed him raw was hearing Newt Gingrich call our fair city "Warshington."

The fur flew fast and furious after that.

Nancy Van Wyen of Manassas wrote that as a third-generation Washington native, "I can assure you that we natives have always pronounced it that way. That's how those new to the area can identify us."

Lawrence Fineran of Falls Church -- whose great-grandmother's great-grandfather was born in Washington -- wrote: "The pronunciation 'Warshington' is native. People like Mr. Milas who ridicule us natives forget that 'Warshington' was once considered a true southern city."

Russell Adams of Fort Valley, Va., said, "It's an accent thing, a holdover from those dear, dead days when so many Washington area natives -- especially those of the white working class -- had mild Tidewater accents."

Tom McLaughlin, a columnist for the Frederick News Post, said he's been on a near lifelong quest to locate the origin of the pronunciation, and he sent me an essay of his headlined " 'WaRshington' Just Sounds Right" to prove it.

So, what do we have here?

Linguists would call it -- in fact, do call it -- an "intrusive R." That's an R that's stuck somewhere unexpected. It happens, said Michael Montgomery, an emeritus professor of linguistics from the University of South Carolina, when the tongue "anticipates" the "sh" sound in "Washington" and curls a little bit.

The pronunciation isn't so much a southern thing as a midland one. In fact, "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.

(Another characteristic of the midland dialect is leaving out "to be" in certain constructions: The car needs washed. The cat wants fed.)

It's impossible to pinpoint where "warsh" came from, but the pattern goes back at least a couple of hundred years. It most likely was carried to the country by Scotch-Irish immigrants, said Barbara Johnstone of Carnegie Mellon University.

The other two major U.S. accents are the northern and the southern, at least west to the Rocky Mountains, where things sort of fall apart and get homogenized, said Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society and author of "How We Talk: American Regional English Today." While the midland accent sticks an R into the word "wash," the southern accent tends to take it out of words, transforming "hard" into "hahd" and "darling" into "dahling," as in "Rhett, dahling, why do you have to be so hahd-hahted?"

An accent, of course, is when somebody else talks funny. The reaction from some readers that there's a proper way to say "Washington" suggests that there's also an improper way to say it. But it all depends on what you grew up with. My paternal grandmother was descended from Col. Jehiel Brooks of Brookland fame, and I don't remember her ever saying "Warshington." And Newt Gingrich? He was born in Harrisburg, Pa., also safely in the midland region.

I asked my linguistical experts if there's a right way and a wrong way to say "Washington."

"Scientists are not in the business of making value judgments," said Dr. Montgomery. "That's up to philosophers or other people who want to sort those things out. Scientists are interested in basically describing and explaining what happens."

Reader Russell thinks that we should be charmed by "Warshington," a "faint remnant of a time when we were not all expected to talk like the man on the 6 o'clock news."

Grace, Period

The other pronunciation that attracted attention was Havre de Grace in Harford County. Several readers said I don't go far enough in pointing out how anti-French the pronunciation is.

It's not "Havruh duh Grayce," said Larry Kessner of Hyattsville, who made an informal survey of the subject when he was a rookie reporter for the Evening Sun in Baltimore. It's more like "HavER duh Grayce."

Others familiar with the burg said it's "HavREE dee Grayce."

Toward the Light

And since we're in the mood for total clarification, reader Mark LeGrande pointed out that when I pitched the name "Monuments" for Washington's new baseball team, I mixed up the colors of the obeliskesque uniforms. The real Washington Monument is lighter on the bottom than it is on the top, the result of that gap in construction.

I wish I were lighter on the bottom than the top. Anyhoo, I'm at kellyj@washpost.com, or at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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