Rolling in the Isles – An Irishman’s Diary on how ‘rhotic’ accents rule the world

Never mind the great scone divide, which we were discussing here yesterday. The most profound disagreement about pronunciation in the English language still hinges, as it has for centuries, on the letter “r”.

As bon mots go, this is not one of the wittier ones in any quotations dictionary

As Shakespeare might have put it, to roll or not to roll – that is the question.

The conflict is accidentally illustrated by a famous line from Winston Churchill, first uttered in Washington in 1954 and much repeated ever since. Speaking at a private White House luncheon, he was expressing the view that negotiation is always preferable to violence. But his exact words, pieced together afterwards by reporters, included the phrase "to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war".

As bon mots go, this is not one of the wittier ones in any quotations dictionary. Indeed, even allowing for the effects of a liquid lunch, it's bordering on laboured.


And whatever pithiness it has depends largely on a presumption that the words “jaw” and “war” rhyme, a point with which most of the English-speaking world (including Churchill’s then hosts) would profoundly disagree. But the phrase was immortalised anyway by headline writers, to be dusted off for every international conflict since.

Those of us who roll our Rs – and this is one the few issues on which Ireland is united, north and south – are said by linguists to have "rhotic" accents.

Which is not to be confused “erotic”, although there may occasionally be overlaps, a subject to which we’ll return.

And English accents were mostly rhotic once, it’s thought, even Shakespeare’s.

But then Britain, or at least the influential southeast, began a long retreat from rhoticity. Eventually, r-rolling became unfashionable there, so that in rhotic outposts, including Ireland, Scotland, and the English west country, the tendency helped mark you out to London ears as a bumpkin.

This suppression of R sounds was in time exported to the colonies of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, all non-rhotic countries today. It also went to America, making the English-speaking parts of that predominantly non-rhotic for a time.

But here’s the irony for Churchillian English. It was war, and the Civil War in particular, that transformed the US into the rhotic world power it became, by nudging the country’s centre of gravity south from New England to places where the “prestige” accent was being overwhelmed by vulgar democracy.

The tidal wave of Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s must have been an influence too.

So whether they knew it or not, the thousands of them who ended up fighting for the union were also fighting for the right to roll their Rs and not be looked down on for it.

Of course, getting back to the White House in the 1950s, there is an irony within the irony. Because when Irish Catholics finally got their man into the Oval Office in 1960, he was a Bostonian who could no more roll an R than Churchill could with a cigar between his teeth.

But it didn't matter. What had begun in the 1800s continued with the rise of Hollywood and was sealed, from the 1960s onwards, by television. The US is almost entirely rhotic today, as is Canada.

Well, as it happens, most people's idea of sexy talk includes anything French, a language with some of the most athletic r-rolling on the planet

And considering the global influence of American English, there is probably now an R-rolling empire on which the sun never sets.

I mentioned “erotic” accents before. Well, as it happens, most people’s idea of sexy talk includes anything French, a language with some of the most athletic r-rolling on the planet.

But “the Irish accent” (as if there’s only one) occasionally tops international polls too.

And when it does, the influence of such actors as Colin Farrell is always credited.

I mention Farrell because he's also responsible for the most egregious example of a mis-rolled R I know. It occurs in his cover version of the song "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)", which he affects to perform, in character, as an inner-city Dubliner. Except that, so doing, he pronounces the line as "I fought the lawre (and the lawre won)". Which, based on any inner-city Dubs I've ever met, is phonier than a three-pound note.

The tendency to insert an R where none exists is, perversely, an idiosyncrasy of non-rhotic speakers. Linguists call it the “linking R”. And it results in some English crime reporters appearing to be obsessed with a female police officer called “Laura Norder”. But whatever Colin Farrell thinks, I’m fairly sure this never happens in Dublin, a city in which “jaw” rhymes with “law”, and never with “war”, even during riots.