Why we 'R' the way we 'R'

How one little sound came to be the hallmark of 'standard American' speech.

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One of the premises of this column is that language is perpetually changing. That's true not only of usage and word choice but of pronunciation, too. It doesn't take too much time watching an old movie to make you realize that the "New York stage English" of early talkies is very different from the American English bouncing around the airwaves today.

How did we get so homogenized? And so Midwesternized?

Many people have a general sense of American broadcast English as being essentially Midwestern. But how and why it got to be that way is another story. "It was because all those famous early broadcasters were from the Midwest," is one common explanation.

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Well, not quite, says Thomas Bonfiglio, a linguist at the University of Richmond in Virginia. In his book "Race and the Rise of Standard American," he offers a more complex, and darker, explanation.

His thesis is this: In the early years of radio, the powers that be within the nascent broadcast media chose "Midwestern" as the standard pronunciation for announcers, rather than the accent of New York City, which was, after all, where they were located. Their motivation was to avoid an accent that, at a time of what he calls "government-sponsored xenophobia," had been stigmatized as the speech of "foreigners."

This isn't how language usually works, Professor Bonfiglio stresses. The standard pronunciation of a language within a country tends to be that of its power center. Thus the Home Counties of London, and not the Yorkshire Dales, are the basis for BBC English, for instance.

This was the period, Bonfiglio notes, when some of America's most prestigious universities, shamefully alarmed at the numbers of Jewish students on their campuses, started recruiting in earnest in the Midwestern and Western parts of the country. Just a few years before, the US Congress had moved to limit immigration.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier "closed," and so some intellectuals began to stew about the country's capacity to absorb and assimilate more immigrants. Theodore Roosevelt, a native New Yorker, insisted on a "national language" to keep the United States from turning into a "polyglot boardinghouse."

The hallmark of this new American standard was the retroflex "r," or more specifically, the postvocalic "r." The Boston joke about "I pahked my cah in Hahvahd Yahd," turns on five instances of "r" after a vowel that disappear. Those "r's" disappear in a number of other accents as well, including some Southern drawls and BBC English. But it's a joke because in the standard American pronunciation those "r's" are all there.

As Bonfiglio tells it, the "r" moves through the history of English like a storm system gradually losing steam. A high-energy trill during the time of Shakespeare, the "r" is later weakened to a "flapped r" (often represented in print as "He's veddy, veddy British"). The "r" that came to the New World was further weakened, but there are regional variations – the "somewhat overarticulated" Canadian "r," or that of Appalachia, so well suited to country-western lyrics like "She broke my hearrrrt."

The Midwestern accent had not only its "r's" intact, but also its long "i" sound, which in the South mellows out to an "ah" sound. The Midwestern accent was thus a "meet in the middle" compromise, albeit hundreds of miles to the west of the center of power.

Note in this political season: Can you imagine John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in Iowa, talking with people to "ahsk" them for their vote?

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