5 January 2013
These days, Dutch broadcast organisation MAX is offering (well, no, it was) a series of classic films on our TV screens: High Society (1956) (31 December 2012), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) (2 January 2013), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) (4 January).
On 3 January we watched parts of The Odd Couple, made in 1968.
In it, I noticed a pronunciation peculiarity. I don’t have the time nor the inclination to find a possibility to rewatch the movie to collect exact citations. So I quote from memory. As I remember it, sometime around two thirds or three quarters of the total playing time, actor Walter Matthau, impersonating Oscar Madison, several times pronounces the word “irony” without an r.
I know that ‘iron’ (the material, chemical element ferrum, Fe; and also the act of smoothing a shirt or similar clothing with a heated iron) is special, in that in non-rhotic English, it has no audible r at all. That is supposed to be because unlike what the spelling suggests, the r does not start a syllable, but rather closes it. The word ‘iron’ sounds as if it were written iern, not iren or iron.
That should mean that in rhotic dialects of English, ‘iron’ should sound like ‘I earn’ or ‘I yearn’ (but with initial stress), with an actually sounded r – a retroflex or retracted approximant. Personally I have never heard anyone really say that, but maybe I haven’t been paying close enough attention.
According to all dictionaries I consulted, and according to my own non-native and therefore fallible English language instinct, ‘irony’ (meaning ‘expressing the opposite of the literal meaning’, not ‘like iron’) is different from ‘iron’, in that the r is starting a new syllable, so it is sounded in all dialects of English, no matter if they are rhotic or non-rhotic.
That makes Walter Matthau’s r-less pronunciation of ‘irony’ – if I heard it correctly and it is really like that – unusual.
What could be the origin? A Lower East Side peculiarity? A personal deviant pronunciation? A deliberate trait to depict a character who doesn’t know how to say even the simplest of ‘difficult’ words properly?
From the responses to my query in Usenet group sci.lang, which I find hard to summarise, the conclusion seems to be that pronouncing ‘irony’ similar to ‘iron’ is uncommon.
I can’t remember if Walter Matthau spoke a non-rhotic accent in the movie, but if so (he was born in New York!), that might explain what I heard: a post-syllabic r in a non-rhotic accent is absent.
Meanwhile I found the movie on Youtube, in ten parts, and the occurrence is in part 5 at about 8m05s: “Don’t you see the irony of it?”
Jack Lemmon says irony as eye-urny, rhotically. Walter Matthau says the same, non-rhotically, talking with a New York accent, with that very characteristic vocalised r in some positions, like in “worse” at 8m41s.
Also listen to “curse” in part 9 (“The curse of the cat people”) at 8m40s, and “I got this lousy curse on my head” in part 10 at 0m50s. The same sound is in the word “first” in part 9 at 10m52s: “We’ll try his apartment first.”
And confer the word ‘iron’ (as a verb), in part 9 at 9m33s “We’ll try to iron it out.” R-less like his “irony”.
Tony Randall played Felix Unger in the TV series (which I never watched), but in the movie it was Jack Lemmon.
In a previous incarnation of this article, I had the two mixed up. Now corrected.