To ‘er’ is human – Frank McNally on the scourge of rhotic imperialism

An Irishman’s Diary

My recent comments on rhoticity – the rolling of Rs after vowels, as practised in Ireland and most of the US but not in posher parts of England – brought a plea from reader Pat McLaughlin about something that "really annoys" him. It's the habit, widespread even in this country, of writing "er" to suggest the hesitation in speech that we actually pronounced "eh".

“I can accept it from the pen of an English, Welsh, or ANZ person, since they would pronounce “er” as “ehh,” he says. “But an Irish person pronounces ‘er’ as ‘err’ […] This is not the way anyone expresses hesitation here”. Pat adds: “You may be shocked to learn that I have even come across this aberration in The Irish Times – Quelle horreur!”

Well, no, I’m not shocked. I suspect I have myself perpetrated this outrage on occasion, so used am I to seeing it in print elsewhere. But I take the point. It must be another vestige of what I call “Flat-r imperialism” – the assumption by non-rhotic writers and speakers that everyone else in the world thinks as they do.

Yes, AA Milne, I’m looking at you. For much of my childhood, I wondered at the stupid name you gave that donkey, until one day it finally dawned that where you live, “Eeyore” is the sound donkeys make. Where I grew up, they always said “Heehaw” (yes, even the Protestant donkeys pronounced their haitches).

Anyway, the "er/eh" issue reminds me of two stories involving Oscar Wilde, one annoying, the other puzzling. The annoying one is a supposed witticism he cracked once at the expense of his fellow Dubliner George Bernard Shaw when they were both making names in London.

Shaw was thinking of starting a journal as a vehicle for his many strong opinions and planned to call it “Shaw’s Magazine”, for added self-promotion. “Shaw! Shaw! Shaw!” he said, thumping the table. Whereupon Wilde asked: “Yes, but how would you spell it?”

Now perhaps the pun there was on “Pshaw!”, an old-fashioned expression of impatience, which would make the joke tolerable. But I fear Wilde was instead thinking of “Sure” (something GBS was about everything, especially himself), which in non-rhotic speech approximates to “Shaw”, although that would be a verbal atrocity of this side of the Irish Sea.

My suspicions on this are supported by a news story from Australia – another Flat-R stronghold – a few years ago, about two sporting brothers named Shaw. The headline read: "To be Shaw, to be Shaw." Ouch. But whatever about Wilde, that's not how GBS spoke. We have no recordings of the former's voice anywhere, but we have plenty of Shaw's, in which he never left an "r" unrolled. His monologues are rhotic masterpieces.

The other Wilde story concerns an article he wrote in 1887, called The American Invasion. It was a satire on Americans in England and included this (about how US women modified their voices to infiltrate society): “Some of them have been known to acquire a fashionable drawl in two Seasons; and after they have been presented to Royalty they roll their r’s as vigorously as a young equerry or an old lady-in-waiting.”

This implies not only that 1880s Americans did not roll their Rs before coming to England (possible if they were from, say, Massachusetts), but that they did so on arrival in imitation of the local aristocracy. Can this be true? Can R-rolling have been the “prestige” accent in London society as recently as then, before becoming the opposite? If only we had recordings from the period.

There was a debate on Twitter this week about how Edward Carson, the Dublin-born hero of Unionism, spoke. His voice seems not to be preserved anywhere. All we have are the assurances of historians that he retained a strong Dublin accent all his life, and even exaggerated it in London courts (including the one where he prosecuted Wilde), so that: "They'd think he was a Dublin eejit and then he'd make mincemeat of them".

Whether Carson rolled his Rs or not, however, his followers do. Ulster may say no, but it never says "Ulstah". Rhotic speech is such a unifying factor in modern Ireland, north and south, it's a wonder the DUP haven't come out against it yet.

A bigger social divide here, arguably, concerns the pronunciation of vowels before the "r". As Ross O'Carroll-Kelly demonstrates, "corrs" are a thing you drive in Dublin, whereas elsewhere they're good-looking singers from Dundalk.

Still, if Phil Coulter’s rugby anthem were to be adopted for political use in a future United Ireland, he could do worse that add another verse: “Ireland, Ireland/In peacetime or in wars/Shoulder to shoulder/We always roll our Rs.”