February 17, 2011

Picking Up My R's: The End of a Boston Accent?

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I didn't know I had an accent until I was 18-years-old.

Montreal, Quebec, my freshman year away at school, there I am at orientation, drinking Boréale beer on a field in the sun, talking with fellow "froshies." But why is everybody asking me to repeat things? I was the Bostonian parakeet. Say this. Repeat that. While familiar with the phrase "park the car in the Harvard yard," (and the addendum "to see number four, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird") I was not familiar with people asking me to recite the stupid phrase all the time. Folks from Toronto with confused looks on their faces, asking if I'm from Australia or South Africa. Nope, not from there sorry... from south of here but not that far south.

Eventually it sunk in that when I was ordering a beer, the bartender was hearing "beah." A Harp lager was a Hahp lahga. Park was pahk, car was cah, Harvard was Hahvid and yard was yahd. Eventually it sunk in that I had a Boston accent.

Origins  Why do you talk like that?

Boston Globe reporter John Powers sums up the history of the Boston accent beautifully in his book, The Boston Dictionary: "The Bawstin accent is merely the King's English (from East Anglia, actually), marinated in conned beef and cabbidge for a few centuries and doused with clam sauce from the Nawth End. It's based on the broad A and the dropped R, but most Americans (who say Basstun and Bahstin) can't mimic it to save their lives."

Essentially, speakers of "Boston English" drop their R's because that's what the English inhabitants of Boston did for centuries. However, the influx of Irish immigrants (who notoriously enjoyed corned beef and cabbage) and Italian immigrants (who notoriously moved to Boston's North End) during the mid and late 19th century undoubtedly influenced local pronunciation and lexicon, which is why John F. Kennedy sounded like John F. Kennedy and not like British royalty.

Clarification  But wait, ahn't you from Woobin?

Yes, I am from Woburn, Massachusetts, which is a city approximately 10 miles northwest of Boston. In 1640, Captain Edward Johnson and six other English residents of Charlestown settled modern-day Woburn with their families. For the next 200 years, the agriculturally-driven community would witness modest growth while remaining a bastion of English Protestantism. But starting in the 1840s and 1850s, Irish immigrants, particularly those from Co. Donegal, stormed Woburn while fleeing the potato famine. As a result, population, industry and Catholicism all began to boom. A second, post-famine wave of Irish arrived in Woburn during the 1880s and 1890s (my great-great grandfather, Michael Devaney, who immigrated in 1892, was among them).

As Woburn received a few helpings of Italian immigrants, it essentially became a microcosm of the city of Boston and -- as a result of accents blending together -- Woburnites developed an accent that is,  to most ears, indistinguishable from the Boston accent. However, I am sure there are subtle differences between the way a person from Woburn speaks and the way a person from, for example, Charlestown, Dorchester or Southie speaks. If you are familiar with any of these differences, please mention them in the comments section below.

Efficiency  How do you talk so fast?

Have you ever talked to a person from Boston and wondered how they could fit so many words into such a short span of speaking time? How is it that in 30 seconds you've already learned about cousin Jimmy's football game, Uncle Terry's battle with gout and a potential -- but unconfirmed -- shark attack off of Cape Cod, while you've also received a recipe for clam chowder (the good stuff, not that tomatoey-goo known as New York chowder).

Not Chowdah.

The answer: efficiency. When I drop an R I'm saving time by not rounding-out the consonant, allowing me to connect words more easily. It is similar to speaking in French, which is a vowel-heavy language. Dropping the consonants allows liaisons to form more easily, which is why a French phrase can sound like one, long rambling word. Similarly, with a Boston accent you can connect words, which speeds up speaking time.

As an example, try reading this sentence aloud: "Instead of going to that bar by the harbor we went to the barber." Notice how rounding those R's takes some effort. Now try saying it like this: "Instead-a-goin' to that bah-by-the-hahbah, we went to the bahbah.

Research  You wuh paht of a linguistics study?

During my first year at school up in Montreal, a friend asked me to do a reading for a linguistics study. The study's goal was to show how an accent, specifically my accent, could influence a person's perception of a speaker's intelligence, physical features and attitude.

The theatah.
So, I read a paragraph from a book -- as naturally as possible -- while my friend recorded my voice. The paragraph was loaded with "R" words: at some point in the short narrative a girl Mary got in her cah and drove to the theatah to see a play. My friend then had a person with no discernible accent and a similarly-pitched voice read the same paragraph for a recording. When my friend played the two recordings to study participants, the participants had to rank me and the other guy according to three criteria: how intelligent they thought we were, how attractive they thought we were and how friendly they thought we were.

The result: I am dumber, uglier and unfriendlier -- in most opinions -- than someone who does not have an accent.

In my defense, the linguistics study was a bit tainted, as the majority of participants who listened to the recordings did not have accents similar to mine and some were not even familiar with the Boston accent. This foreignness may account for at least some of the negative associations. Of course, the results of the intelligence aspect of the study may also be tied to the fact that poorer communities in the Boston area, including Woburn, tend to produce more accented speakers in comparison to wealthier communities. As a result, stereotypes proliferate that accented-speakers in the Boston area are dumber -- and consequently poorer -- than non-accented speakers.

On the opposite side of the coin, stereotypes proliferate that non-accented speakers from the Boston area are a bunch of jerk-faces. But of course, stereotyping is not an exact science.

Final Thoughts  What will the feutcha hold?

When I came home to Boston for my 5-year high school reunion, I was accused of sounding like a Canadian, or in some estimations, "like a weeuhdoh (weirdo)." While not entirely gone, my accent has certainly faded, a result of multiple years of living amongst non-Bostonians, no doubt. To be sure, I never intentionally tried to pick up my R's, but subconsciously I must have been absorbing the pronunciation patterns of the English-speakers around me. My brain, in an attempt to help me "fit in" with these speakers, began a process of eliminating my accent, or so it would seem.

But what will the fate of my accent be? When I'm back in Boston,  talking with family and friends, will my R's dive back down below, allowing my accent to resurface? Or will I continue to talk like a weeuhdoh?

Only time will tell.

Further Reading:


  1. Well written and a nice history lesson. My family is from Abington MA and has never left. I realized I had a relly strong accent after my first night as a bartender in a NJ bar. The same bar I was working in during the 2004 World Series.