A Boston accent is a local accent of Eastern New England English native specifically to the city of Boston and its suburbs. Eastern New England English also traditionally includes New Hampshire, Maine, all of eastern Massachusetts, and arguably Rhode Island, though some uniquely local vocabulary appears only around Boston. Some of the characteristics of traditional Boston accents may be retreating, particularly among younger residents. Linguist William Labov, however, claims that, in the twenty-first century, there remains a relatively stable Boston accent, which subsequent research suggests is increasingly becoming limited to the historically Irish-American neighborhood of South Boston.
|Diphthongs||aɪ ɔɪ aʊ (ɪə ʊə ɛə oə)|
The phonemicity of the centering diphthongs /ɪə, ʊə, ɛə, oə/ depends on rhoticity; see below.
Instead of merging the historical "short o" (as in lot) with the "broad a" (as in father), the Boston accent merges it with the "aw" as in "paw", so that caught, cot, law, wand, rock, talk, doll, and wall all are pronounced with the same open back rounded vowel /ɒ/ that contrasts with the /a/ of father and spa, which means that even though dark has no /r/ in many Boston accents, it remains distinct from dock because it belongs to the START–PALM class instead of the LOT–THOUGHT–NORTH one: dark /dak/ vs. dock /dɒk/. By contrast, New York accents have /kɔt/ for caught and /kɑt/ for cot (phonetically [kʰɔəʔ] and [kʰɑ̈ʔ]). RP has /kɔːt/ for the former and /kɒt/ for the latter. In Boston and some other parts of New England, a few words ending in /t/, e.g., hot and got, can be pronounced with an entirely different phoneme, however, sounding instead like hut and gut, respectively.
Eastern New England English has a so-called "nasal short-a system". This means that the "short a" vowel /æ/ as in cat and rat is diphthongized to [eə] when it precedes a nasal consonant (but also, on a continuous scale in some other environments); thus, man is [meən] and planet is [pʰleənɪʔ]. Boston shares this system with some of the Midwest and most of the West, though the raising in Boston tends to be more noticeable and extreme than elsewhere. This system is not shared with London or New York City accents. In addition to raising before nasals, Bostonians (unlike nearby New Hampshirites, for example) also tend to somewhat "raise" or "break" the "short a" sound the most before voiceless fricatives (followed by voiced stops, laterals, voiceless stops, and voiced fricatives), so that words like half, bath, and glass become [hɛəf], [bɛəθ] and [ɡlɛəs], respectively. This trend began around the early-mid to mid-twentieth century, replacing the older Boston accent's London-like "broad a" system, in which those same words are transferred over to the PALM class /a/ (see "Declining characteristics" below).
The raised [ɛə] may overlap with the non-rhotic realization of SQUARE as [ɛə].
|fan, lamb, stand||[ɛə][A][B]||[ɛə]||[ɛə]||[ɛə~ɛjə]||[ɛə]||[ɛə]|
|Prevocalic /ɡ/||dragon, magazine||[æ]|
/b, d, ʃ/
|grab, flash, sad||[ɛə][A]||[æ]||[ɛə]|
/f, θ, s/
|ask, bath, half,
|Otherwise||as, back, happy,
Boston accents make a greater variety of distinctions between short and long vowels before medial /r/ than many other modern American accents do: hurry /ˈhʌri/ and furry /ˈfɜri/; and mirror /ˈmɪrə/ and nearer /ˈnɪərə/, though some of these distinctions are somewhat endangered as people under 40 in neighboring New Hampshire and Maine have lost them. Boston shares these distinctions with both New York and Received Pronunciation, but the Midwest, for instance, has lost them entirely.
The nuclei of the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ may be raised to something like [ɐ] before voiceless consonants: thus write has a higher vowel than ride and lout has a higher vowel than loud. This effect is known usually as Canadian raising, and it is less extreme in New England than in most of Canada. Furthermore, some Boston accents may raise either or both of the diphthongs (particularly /aʊ/) in not only voiceless but also voiced environments.
The nuclei of /oʊ/ and /u/ are significantly less fronted than in many American accents. /u/ may be diphthongized to approximately [ʊu] or [ɵu].
Speakers of the more deeply urban varieties of the Boston accent may realize the English dental fricatives /θ, ð/ as the dental stops [t̪, d̪], giving rise to a phonemic distinction between dental and alveolar stops.
The traditional Boston accent is non-rhotic, particularly in the early 1900s. Recent studies have shown that younger speakers use more of a rhotic accent than older speakers from the Boston region. The phoneme /r/ does not appear in coda position (where in English phonotactics it must precede other consonants, see English phonology - coda), as in most dialects of English in England and Australia; card therefore becomes /kad/ "cahd" and color /ˈkʌlə/ "culluh". Words such as weird /wɪəd/ and square /skwɛə/ feature centering diphthongs, which correspond to the sequences of close and mid vowels + /r/ in rhotic AmE.
A famous example is "Park the car in Harvard Yard", pronounced [pʰak ðə ˈkʰaɹ‿ɪn ˌhavəd ˈjad], or as if spelled "pahk the cah(r) in Hahvud Yahd". Note that the r in car would usually be pronounced in this case, because the following word begins with a vowel.
The Boston accent possesses both linking R and intrusive R: That is to say, an /r/ will not be lost at the end of a word if the next word begins with a vowel, and indeed an /r/ will be inserted after a word ending with a central or low vowel if the next word begins with a vowel: the tuner is and the tuna is are both /ðə ˈtunər‿ɪz/.
Many characteristics of the Boston accent may be retreating, particularly among younger residents. In the most "old-fashioned" of Boston accents, there may be a lingering resistance to the horse–hoarse merger. In Boston, horse has the /ɒ/ phoneme; in other words, the accent features the NORTH–LOT–THOUGHT merger, so that tort, tot and taught are phonemically all /tɒt/. It is distinct from the FORCE vowel, as in hoarse /hoəs/. Other words fall into these distinct classes too, like for vs. four: /fɒ/ vs. /foə/, mirroring RP as spoken at the beginning of the 20th century (though it had a distinct LOT vowel). This distinction is rapidly fading out of currency (with the words belonging to the NORTH class being transferred over to the FORCE class, undoing the merger of NORTH with LOT–THOUGHT), as it is in almost all regions of North America that still make it. For rhotic speakers, both NORTH and FORCE are GOAT + /r/: /noʊrθ, foʊrs/ (phonetically closer to [noɹθ, foɹs]). The remaining centering diphthongs also disappear in the rhotic variety, so that near, cure and square are /nir, kjur, skweɪr/ (the last one is phonetically [skweɹ]) instead of the traditional /nɪə, kjʊə, skwɛə/.
A feature that Boston speakers once shared with Received Pronunciation, though now uncommon, is the "broad a" of the BATH lexical set of words, making a distinction from the TRAP set ( ). In particular words that in other American accents have the "short a" pronounced as /æ/, that vowel was replaced in the nineteenth century (if not earlier and often sporadically by speakers as far back as the late eighteenth century) with /a/: thus, half as /haf/ and bath as /baθ/. Fewer words have the broad a in Boston English than in the London accents, and fewer and fewer Boston speakers maintain the broad a system as time goes on, with its transition into a decline occurring in speakers born from about 1930 to 1950 (and first documented as a decline in 1977). Boston speakers born before about 1930 used this broad a in the words after, ask, aunt, bath, calf, can't, glass, half, laugh, pasture, path, and perhaps other words, and born from about 1930 to 1950 use it only in aunt, calf, half, laugh, and pass. Speakers born since 1950 typically have no broad a whatsoever and, instead, slight /æ/ raising (i.e. [ɛə]), for example, in craft, bad, math, etc.) with this same set of words and, variably, other instances of short a too. Only aunt maintains the broad a sound in even the youngest speakers, though this one word is a common exception throughout all of the Northeastern U.S.
In popular culture
Although not all Boston-area speakers are non-rhotic, non-rhoticity remains the feature most widely associated with the region. As a result, it is frequently the subject of humor about Boston, as in comedian Jon Stewart joking in his book America that, although John Adams drafted the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, "delegates from his state refused to ratify the letter 'R'".
Being conspicuous and easily identifiable as regional, Boston accents are routinely featured by actors in films set in Boston, particularly for working-class white characters, such as in Good Will Hunting, Mystic River, The Departed, Manchester by the Sea, The Town, Ted, The Fighter, and Black Mass. Television series based within a Boston setting such as Boston Public and Cheers have featured the accent. Simpsons character Mayor Quimby talks with an exaggerated Boston accent as reference to the former US Senator Ted Kennedy. Television comedy sketches have featured the accent, including "The Boston Teens" and "Dunkin Donuts" on Saturday Night Live, as well as "Boston Accent Trailer" on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
In The Heat, the family of Shannon Mullins all speak with the Boston accent and confusion arises from the pronunciation of the word narc as nahk /nak/. 30 Rock character Nancy Donovan speaks with a pronounced Boston accent. In the video game Team Fortress 2, the character Scout, who is himself a Boston native, talks with a distinct Boston accent, although it sometimes lapses into a Brooklyn accent.
Some words most famously associated with the Boston area are:
- Bubbler or water bubbler: Drinking fountain. This term is also used in Wisconsin and Australia.
- Clicker: Remote control, generally for a television.
- Frappe /fræp/: A beverage mixed with milk and ice cream, a.k.a. milkshake (in most other places), or if in Rhode Island (and especially if coffee flavored), called a "cabinet".
- Hoodsie: A small cup of ice cream, the kind that comes with a flat wooden spoon (from HP Hood, the dairy that sells them.) Also (very offensive slang), a teenage girl. Elsewhere occasionally known as a dixie cup.
- Jimmies: Sprinkles. Also common in the Philadelphia area.
- Pissah: "great" or "amazing" either realistically or sarcastically. Also spelled 'pissa'. This is from the word "pisser" with a Boston accent, but used as an adjective. Occasionally combined with "wicked" to yield "wicked pissah".
- Spa: A convenience store that has tonic (see below) on tap and (usually) sells sandwiches.
- Tonic /ˈtɒnɪk/: Any sweet, carbonated soft drink (known elsewhere as "soda" or "pop").
- Whiffle: A crew cut or male haircut done with electric clippers.
- Wicked: "Very" or "super", used as an adverb. "That hockey game was wicked awesome!" It can also be used to infer tones and moods, for example, "Ugh, that guy is wicked slow."
Many words common to Boston are also common throughout the New England dialects: blinkers for "automobile turn signals" (the Massachusetts Department of Transportation even has signs reminding motorists, with Boston phonetic spelling, to "Use Yah Blinkah"), packie (or package store) for "liquor store", and rotary for "traffic circle" (these full-speed circular intersections being common in Greater Boston).
Notable lifelong native speakers
- William J. Bratton – "thick Boston accent"
- Bill Burr — "the comic's wicked Boston accent"
- Lenny Clarke – "a Cambridge-raised verbal machine gun with a raspy Boston accent"
- Chick Corea – "his speech still carries more than a trace of a Boston accent"
- Sue Costello – "Between her thick Boston accent and fearless, stand-up style, Sue Costello is a true embodiment of the city's comedy scene."
- Nick DiPaolo – "thick Boston accent"
- Jack Haley – "from Boston (as anyone who heard the Tin Man's accent would know)"
- Mel King – "he has the soft R's of a deep Boston accent"
- Lyndon LaRouche – "a cultivated New England accent"
- Tom and Ray Magliozzi – "like drunk raccoons with Boston accents"
- Rocky Marciano – "He spoke with distinct traces of a Boston accent"
- Gina McCarthy – "Obama's nominee to head the EPA has that spectacular South Boston accent"
- Joey McIntyre – "his authentic Boston accent"
- Christy Mihos – "speaks unpretentiously in a variation of a Boston accent, and drops the 'g' in words like talking or running."
- Thomas Menino – "strong traces of the Boston dialect"
- Brian and Jim Moran – "The Moran brothers share... an unmistakable Massachusetts accent"
- Alex Rocco – "grew up in blue-collar Cambridge"
- Tom Silva – "New England accent"
- Marty Walsh – "he demonstrates what many believe to be the strongest Boston dialect in the city’s mayoral history."
- Jermaine Wiggins – "skin as thick as his East Boston accent"
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- Message 1: Summary of 'bubbler', archived from the original on November 19, 2000
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- "Hoodsie". Glossary at Boston-Online.com. Archived from the original on February 11, 2012.
- Boston To English Dictionary at CelebrateBoston.com
- "Regional Vocabulary". The New York Times. 2006-03-17. Retrieved 2010-04-26.
- Harrison, Mim (2011). Wicked Good Words: From Johnnycakes to Jug Handles, a Roundup of America's Regionalisms. Penguin. ISBN 978-1101543399.
- "Winship Spa - Brighton, MA". Yelp.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- "Montrose Spa - Porter Square - Cambridge, MA". Yelp.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- "Hillside Spa Cardoza Brothers - Beacon Hill - Boston, MA". Yelp.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- "Hodgkin's Spa - Somerville, MA". Yelp.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- "Sam's Spa Convenience - About - Google". Google Maps. Retrieved 2012-06-18.[permanent dead link]
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- Concannon, Jim (May 12, 2009). "Mel's Vision". The Boston Globe.
- King, Dennis (1989). Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism. New York: Doubleday. p. 306.
- Littlefield, Kinney (2008-07-01). "Radio's 'Car Talk' guys reluctantly tackle TV". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
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- Roberts, Randy (2005). The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub: A Random History of Boston Sports. Harvard University Press. p. 222
- NewSoundbites (YouTube user; uploaded 2013) "Boston accent goes national with President Obama's pick for EPA." YouTube. Excerpted from MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.
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- Guide to Boston English
- Glossary of Boston English
- Article on Boston accent
- "So don't I" - a unique grammatical construct
- Boston Slang Dictionary
- Recordings of the Boston accent