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The Boston accent is the local accent of Eastern New England English spoken specifically in the city of Boston, its suburbs, and much of eastern Massachusetts. Eastern New England English also traditionally includes New Hampshire and Maine, though some uniquely local lexical characteristics appear only in eastern Massachusetts.
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 many dialects of English in England and all dialects of Australian English; card therefore becomes [kʰaːd]. After high and mid-high vowels, the /r/ is replaced by [ə] or another neutral central vowel like [ɨ]: weird [wiɨd], square [ˈskweə]. Similarly, unstressed /ɝ/ ("er") is replaced by [ə], [ɐ], or [ɨ], as in color [ˈkʰʌɫə]. A famous example is "Park the car in Harvard Yard", pronounced [pʰaːk ðə ˈkʰaːɹ‿ɪn ˈhaːvəd ˈjaːd], or as if spelled "pahk the cah(r) in Hahvuhd Yahd". Note that the r in car would usually be pronounced in this case, because the following word begins with a vowel (see linking R below).
Although not all Boston-area speakers are non-rhotic, this remains the feature most widely associated with the region. As a result, it is frequently the subject of jokes about Boston, as in Jon Stewart's America, in which he jokes that the Massachusetts Legislature ratified everything in John Adams' 1780 Massachusetts Constitution "except the letter 'R'".
In the most traditional, "old-fashioned", Boston accents, what is in other dialects /ɔr/ becomes a low back vowel [ɒ]: corn is [kʰɒːn], pronounced the same or almost the same as con or cawn.
For some old-fashioned speakers, stressed /ɝ/ as in bird is replaced by [ʏ] - [bʏd]; for many present-day Boston-accent speakers, however, /ɝ/ is retained (generally as [ɚ] or [əɹ]).
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 tʰuːnəɹɪz].
There are also a number of Boston accent speakers with rhoticity, but they occasionally delete /r/ only in unaccented syllables, e.g., mother or words before a consonant, e.g., car hop.
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|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||Boston phoneme||Example words|
before /g/: [æ]
before /m, n/: [eə~ɛə]
older, "broad a": [äː]
|act, bad, drag,
man, pal, trap
|/ɑː/||[ä(ː)]||blah, father, spa|
|/ɒ/||[ɒː~ɑː]||bother, lot, wasp|
|dog, loss, off|
|/ɔː/||all, caught, saw|
|/ɛ/||[ɛ]||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||[ə]||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||[ɪ~ɪ̞~ɪ̈]||hit, skim, tip|
|/iː/||[i(ː)]||beam, chic, fleet|
|/ɨ/||[ɪ~ɪ̈~ə]||island, gamut, wasted|
|/ʌ/||[ʌ~ɐ]||bus, flood, what|
|/ʊ/||[ʊ]||book, put, should|
|/uː/||[uː~ʊu~ɵu]||food, glue, new|
|/aɪ/||before a voiceless consonant: [ɐi]||bright, dice, tyke|
|elsewhere: [äɪ]||ride, shine, try|
|/aʊ/||before a voiceless consonant: [ɐʊ]||house, mouth, scout|
|elsewhere: [aʊ]||now, howl, pound|
|/eɪ/||[eɪ]||lake, paid, rein|
|/ɔɪ/||[ɔɪ~oɪ]||boy, choice, moist|
|/oʊ/||[oʊ~ɔʊ]||goat, oh, show|
|/ɑr/||[äː~aː] (intervocalic: [äːɹ~aːɹ])||barn, car, park|
|/ɛər/||[ɛə~ɛɜ] (intervocalic: [ɛəɹ])||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜr/||[ɝ~ɚ] (older: [ɜ~ə~ɐ])||burn, first, herd|
|/ər/||[ə~ɜ] (intervocalic: [əɹ])||doctor, martyr, pervade|
|/ɪər/||[ɪə~ɪɜ] (intervocalic: [ɪɹ])||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɔr/||[ɔə~ɒə~ɒː] (intervocalic: [ɔəɹ~ɒəɹ~ɒːɹ])||horse, for, war|
|/ɔər/||[ɔə~oɜ] (intervocalic: [ɔəɹ~oɜɹ])||hoarse, four, wore|
|/ʊər/||[ʊə~ʊɜ] (intervocalic: [ʊɹ])||moor, poor, tour|
|/jʊər/||[jʊə~jʊɜ] (intervocalic: [jʊɹ])||cure, Europe, pure|
The Boston accent has a highly distinctive system of low vowels, even in speakers who do not drop /r/ as described above. Eastern New England is one of the few regions in North America where the distinction between the vowel phonemes exemplified by father and bother is widely maintained. (A variable distinction is maintained in New York City.) Example include words like father and spa which contain [äː] ([ˈfäːðə], [späː]) and bother and dock which contain [ɒː] ([ˈbɒːðə], [dɒːk]). This means that even though dark has no [ɹ], it remains distinct from dock because its vowel quality is different: [daːk] vs. [dɒːk]. By contrast, most US English uses the same or almost the same vowel in both of these classes: [ɑː]. The Received Pronunciation of England, like Boston English, distinguishes the classes, using [ɑː] in father and [ɒ] in bother.
The Boston accent merges the two classes exemplified by caught and cot: both become [kʰɒːt]. So caught, cot, law, water, rock, talk, doll, and wall all have the same vowel, [ɒː]. By contrast, New York accents and southern New England accents have [kʰɔət] for caught and [kʰɑt~kʰät] for cot; The UK's Received Pronunciation has [kʰɔːt~kʰoːt] and [kʰɒt~kʰɔt], respectively. In Boston and some other parts of New England, a few words ending in /t/, e.g., hot and got, can be exceptions, sounding instead like hut and gut, respectively.
Some older Boston speakers – the ones who have a low vowel in words like corn [kʰɒːn] – do not undergo the so-called horse–hoarse merger, i.e., they maintain a distinction between both horse and for, and hoarse and four. The former are in the same class as corn, as [hɒːs] and [fɒː], and the latter are [ˈho(w)əs] and [ˈfo(w)ə]. This distinction is rapidly fading out of currency, as it is in almost all regions of North America that still make it. Regardless, for some Boston speakers, the words tot, tort, and taught may all be homophones.
Boston English has a so-called "nasal short-a system". This means that the "short a" vowel [æ] as in cat and rat becomes a mid-high front diphthong [eə] when it precedes a nasal consonant (but also, on a continuous scale in some other environments); thus, man is [meən] and planet is [ˈpʰɫeənət]. Boston shares this system with the accents of the southern part of the Midwest and the major cities of the West, though the raising of this vowel in Boston tends to be more noticeable and extreme than elsewhere. By contrast, England's Received Pronunciation uses [æ] regardless of whether the next consonant is nasal or not, and New York City uses [eə] before a nasal at the end of a syllable ([meən]) but not before a nasal between two vowels ([ˈpʰɫænət]).
|New York City|
|/r/||open||lax [æ]||tense [eə]||tense
|/b/, /d/, /dʒ/,
/g/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/
|lax [æ]||tense [eə]|
|/f/, /s/, /θ/||closed|
|all other consonants||lax [æ]|
A feature that Boston speakers once shared with England's standard "Received Pronunciation," though now uncommon, is the so-called "broad a": In particular words that in other American accents have the "short a" as in half or bath pronounced as [æ], that vowel was replaced in the nineteenth century (if not earlier and often sporadically by speaker) with [aː~ɑː]: [haːf], [baːθ]. Fewer words have the broad a in Boston English than in Received Pronunciation, and fewer and fewer Boston speakers maintain the broad a system as time goes on. Boston speakers born before about 1930 used this broad a in the words half, path, ask, and can't. Speakers born between about 1930 to 1950 use the broad a only in half and pass, otherwise slightly raising and diphthongizing the vowel of this set of words (and, variably, other instances of short a) to [ɛə]. Speakers born since 1950 typically have no broad a whatsoever and, instead, slight /æ/ tensing across the board (i.e. [ɛə]), for example, in craft, bad, math, etc. The word aunt, however, remains almost universally broad.
Boston accents make a greater variety of distinctions between short and long vowels before medial [ɹ] than many other modern American accents do: hurry [ˈhʌɹi] and furry [ˈfɝɹi]; and mirror [ˈmɪɹə] and nearer [ˈniəɹə], 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 (one of the two phenomena of) Canadian raising, though it is less extreme in New England than in most of Canada. Furthermore, some Boston accents have a tendency to raise the /aʊ/ diphthong in both voiced and voiceless environments and some Boston accents may raise the /aɪ/ diphthong in certain voiced environments.
The nuclei of /oʊ/ and /uː/ are significantly less fronted than in many American accents. /uː/ may be diphthongized to approximately [ʊu] or [ɵu].
Use in media
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As a conspicuous, easily identifiable accent, the Boston accent is routinely featured in Boston-setting films such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Good Will Hunting, Ted, Mystic River, The Departed, Blow, The Town, Blown Away, The Fighter, Black Mass, and Gone Baby Gone. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, a character mentions the accent in parody, giving his "best regahds". 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. In The Heat, FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn meets the family of Shannon Mullins, who (except Shannon) all speak with the Boston accent and momentarily left Ashburn confused when one of them asked if she was a narc (pronounced as "nahk"). 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. Many elements of the Boston accent can be heard on the animated TV series Family Guy, which is set in the fictional city of Quahog, Rhode Island. The Saturday Night Live sketch The Boston Teens with Jimmy Fallon (who is imitating) and Rachel Dratch (who really does use it) also uses it frequently.
Notable lifelong native speakers
- William J. Bratton – "thick 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"
Some words used in the Boston area are:
- turn signals on a car (also U.K., Australia and New Zealand). The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has displayed signs reminding motorists to "Use Yah Blinkah", a phonetic representation of the phrase as spoken with a Boston accent.
- bubbler (or water bubbler)
- drinking fountain, pronounced "bubblah". This term is also used in Wisconsin and Australia.
- 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". From French, meaning "shaken or stirred".
- 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.
- Chocolate ice cream sprinkles. Also common in the Philadelphia area.
- liquor store (from "package store")
- means something akin to "great" 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".
- traffic circle. These full-speed circular intersections are common in Greater Boston.
- A convenience store that has tonic on tap and (usually) sells sandwiches.
- soft drink; known elsewhere as soda
- a crew cut or male haircut done with electric clippers.
- Generally means "very" or "super" and is 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."
- Eastern New England English
- New England English
- North American English regional phonology
- Regional vocabularies of American English
- Schneider, Edgar; Bernd Kortmann (2005). A Handbook of Varieties of English: A Multi-Media Reference Tool. Mouton de Gruyter. p. 270. ISBN 978-3-11-017532-5.
- Millward, C.M. (1996). A Biography of the English Language. Wadsworth Publishing. p. 353. ISBN 978-0-15-501645-3.
- Irwin, Patricia; Nagy, Naomi (2007). "Bostonians /r/ Speaking: A Quantitative Look at (R) in Boston". University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics. 13 (2).
- Vorhees, Mara (2009). Boston. Con Pianta. Ediz. Inglese. Lonely Planet. p. 52. ISBN 978-1-74179-178-5.
- Randall, Eric (August 25, 2015). "Blame Harvard for this annoying Boston accent test". The Boston Globe.
- Heggarty, Paul et al, eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of Edinburgh.
- Labov et al. (2006), p. 182.
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 235
- Labov et al. 2006 The Atlas of North American English Berlin: DeGruyter
- Wells (1982), p. 523.
- Brown, John Robbie (2 July 2007). "Kennedy backs city's 'Simpsons Movie' campaign". Boston.com. NY Times Co.
- Roberts, Sam (2006-01-16). "Mayor's Accent Deserts Boston for New York". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
- Rubin, Joel (2008-12-07). "Police chief says he still has plenty to prove". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
- Sullivan, Jim (2001-04-18). "Lenny Clarke Deftly Handles Nightschtick". The Boston Globe.
- Cumbie, Ty (2004-10-30). "Chick Corea". All About Jazz. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
- Mitter, Siddhartha (2008-02-29). "A banjo, a piano, and two willing masters". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
- Juul, Matt (2015). "Watch: Dorchester comic riffs on Boston, Gronk, and more". Boston.com. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC.
- Calhoun, Ada (2004-03-29). "Did You Hear The One About The @&%#! Comic?". New York. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
- Sletcher, Michael, ed. (2004). New England: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 186. ISBN 0-313-32753-X.
- 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.
- Leibovich, Mark (2005-05-04). "Oh, Brother: 'Car Talk' Guy Puts Mouth in Gear". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
- 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.
- Moraski, Lauren (2014-10-30). "Joey McIntyre on appeal of "The McCarthys," future of NKOTB". CBS News.
- Mooney, Brian C. (2006-02-19). "The nonpolitician who would be governor". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
- Baker, Billy (2013-11-17). "In Walsh, students of Bostonese have found their avatah". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2015-06-15.
- Gardner, Amy (2009-02-11). "A Time to Reevaluate Family Ties". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-02-27.
- Allis, Sam (2004-01-25). "It's tough to talk like a true Bostonian". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-02-27.
- Bizjak, Marybeth (February 2007). "Mr. Fix-It". Sacramento Magazine. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
- Jensen, Sean (2004-12-03). "Despite his unlikely build, Vikings' Wiggins gets it done at tight end.". Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
- Boston To English Dictionary at CelebrateBoston.com
- "Boston drivers urged to 'Use Yah Blinkah'". AP. Retrieved 2014-06-07.
- Message 1: Summary of 'bubbler', archived from the original on November 19, 2000
- "Bubbler map - Wisconsin Englishes". Csumc.wisc.edu. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- Heller, Carolyn B. "Drinking a Cabinet: How to Talk Like a New Englander". Cbheller.com. C.B. Heller. Retrieved February 2, 2014.
- Tsolakidou, Stella (May 19, 2012). "Frappé: The History of Coffee That Greeks Are Obsessed With".
- "Hoodsie". Glossary at Boston-Online.com. Archived from the original on February 11, 2012.
- "Regional Vocabulary". The New York Times. 2006-03-17. Retrieved 2010-04-26.
- Dictionary of American Regional English
- Gordon, Heather (2004). Newcomer's Handbook For Moving To And Living In Boston: Including Cambridge, Brookline, And Somerville. First Books. p. 14. ISBN 978-0912301549.
- 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". Maps.google.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- Labov et al., Atlas of North American English
- McCarthy, John (1993). "John McCarthy".
- Metcalf, Allan. How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Wells, John C. (1982), Accents of English: Beyond the British Isles, 3, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press
|Look up park the car in Harvard Yard in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- 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