Rolling in the aisles – Frank McNally on how a ‘bad’ Irish habit conquered America

R-rolling was vital to perceptions of social standing

In his Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (1791), Londoner John Walker warned readers against a habit be considered central to “that harshness of speech we call the Irish accent”.

A stage actor turned philologist, Walker was referring to what he called the “rough r”. Where that letter occurred in the middle or end of a word, he said, the Irish were inclined to roll it aggressively, which unlike the “smooth r” of England, where “lard” and “bard” became “laad” and baad”, offended his ears.

He also cautioned, however, against overdoing the smoothness, as some English speakers did: “If this letter is too forcibly pronounced in Ireland, it is often too feebly sounded in England, and particularly in London, where it is sometimes entirely sunk.”

Walker’s dictionary was hugely influential, running to 40 editions and informing British opinion for long afterwards on what constituted “correct” speech. Meanwhile, that speech was also crossing the Atlantic as an upmarket export.


As the great American linguist William Labov, in a 2010 BBC report on New York accents, explained: “Back about 1800 all the major cities in the eastern seaboard of the United States began to copy the British pronunciation of not pronouncing the final ‘r’ as a consonant, saying ‘caah’ instead of ‘car`.”

But over time, a habit that that was associated with the quality back in England came to have opposite significance in New York.

In extreme forms there – for example when referring to “Toity Toid” Street – it contributed to an accent that, while beloved of comedians, was one most Americans felt they could safely look down on, alongside that other social pariah, the Southern drawl.

Gradually, outside of Boston and other pockets of New England, r-rolling became the norm in the US. To the advantage of newly arriving Irish emigrants, it even became part of the “correct” way of speaking, insofar as American had one.

Hence a famous experiment of the 1960s, when the same Labov studied speech patterns among staff in three multi-floor Manhattan department stores of different social standing.

His premise was that sales staff in such places would be more receptive than most people to picking up the accents of their customers, especially those considered high class.

His upmarket sample was Saks, Fifth Avenue; the downmarket one a discount store on 14th Street called S Klein. For the one in the middle, he close Macy’s. The stores’ clienteles were reflected even in where they advertised. Saks preferred the New York Times; S Klein the Daily News; Macy’s straddled both.

Crucial to Labov’s survey was that the respondents would not know they were being surveyed, since self-consciousness might affect the results. So, posing as a customer, the study asked a total of 250 staff a series of casual questions – eg “where is the women’s shoes department?” – the answer to which was always the “fourth floor”.

Sure enough, staff at S Klein were most likely to say “foath floah”, or a variation of same. In Macy’s, they were more likely to roll their “r”s. But they were most likely to do so in Saks.

There were also interesting age variations in the three stores, suggesting different social patterns by which the habit was learned.

The headline result, however, was that r-rolling was vital to social climbing in New York, to the Fourth Floor and beyond. In the 60 years since, the continuing advance of rhoticity (as it’s known to linguists) among the city’s upwardly mobile has been confirmed by several more studies.

Not all non-rhotic accents in the US are equal, of course. There is a big difference in status between the New Yorker who says “Toity Toid” and the Boston Brahmin who went to college in “Hahvahd Yahd”. And as reflected by Hollywood, the question of what rhoticity or its absence says to or about Americans is both profound and complex.

In a study of that subject back in 2000, Nancy Elliott noted that flat-r pronunciations in movies were associated with both “elegance, refinement, wealth, and good breeding” as well as “New York-style urban toughness”. On the other hand, they also often had negative connotation, including unscrupulousness and deceit.

But as portrayed in Hollywood, she found, rhoticity was almost invariably the preserve of the good, being the norm both for cartoon heroes and for child actors, “with the exception of one evil, murdering child in The Bad Seed (1956), who was non-rhotic”.

Why r-rolling should be so associated with virtue was interesting, Elliott rightly concluded: “One could speculate that r-ful speech is viewed as honest and sincere, while the r-less speech of New England and upperclass Britain, from the point of view of the r-ful majority, might be associated with artifice, pretence, and insincere sophistication.”