It is an XHTML attribute.
Here’s what the W3C say about it.
>The attribute describes the role(s) the current element plays in the context of the document. This can be used, for example, by applications and assistive technologies to determine the purpose of an element. This could allow a user to make informed decisions on which actions may be taken on an element and activate the selected action in a device independent way. It could also be used as a mechanism for annotating portions of a document in a domain specific way (e.g., a legal term taxonomy). Although the role attribute may be used to add semantics to an element, authors SHOULD use elements with inherent semantics rather than layering semantics on semantically neutral elements.