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A good idear — rooting for regional accents

February 21, 2011
The Harbor Towers (far right) are very promine...

The Harbor Towers (far right) are very prominent in the Boston skyline when viewed from Boston Harbor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The Fighter, the character played by Christian Bale stumbles out of a crack house and wonders aloud where he left his vehicle. “Where’s my cah?” Dicky shouts. “Where’s my cah?”

Ah, music to my Boston-bred ears. Dicky was searching for his car, of course. It was refreshing to hear an authentic-sounding Boston accent voiced by an actor who doesn’t hail from Massachusetts. It’s not an easy accent to learn and most actors fail to get it right. In this case, it took a Welshman to nail the dropped or misplaced r’s and broad “a” characteristic of Boston-speak.

Although I moved away from the Bay State years ago, my Beantown accent endures — especially when I say words with “ar” combinations, such as car, heart and article. Certain pronunciations seem to be seared into my gray matter — I couldn’t change them if I wanted to. But the truth is, I don’t want to lose the accent I grew up with. I’m proud to be a Boston-area native — it’s part of my identity and always will be, no matter where I live.

This post is in defense of not only the singular Boston accent but also the idea that a country flavored by a rich stew of regional accents is a much more colorful, interesting one. I don’t want to sound like everyone else — and I don’t want everyone else to sound like me. How boring would that be?

I’ll readily admit that to the uninitiated, Boston-speak — a dialect that extends far beyond the city’s metro area — can take a while to get used to. Throw in Boston’s homegrown slang (“bubbler” and “wicked good” are personal favorites), and I pity the poor newcomer trying to make sense of it all.

Say that again?

When I meet someone for the first time, he or she usually doesn’t notice my accent until I’ve uttered one of the telltale words that bring out the Beantown in me. Most of the time, the person’s reaction is one of curiosity and genuine interest in my background.

But sometimes, I get the Look and the Attitude. It starts with an amused smile, followed by a gushing, “Oh, I love the Boston accent.” All the while, the person’s eyes and tone of voice are saying, “how quaint/peculiar/different” (or worse).

At times, I even get this reaction from native New Yorkers, who, the last time I checked, are the proud owners of a distinctive accent. That accent encompasses not only the variations among the five boroughs but also the speech patterns common to folks in the northern suburbs, where I occasionally taawk with friends over a cup of caw-fee.

A former coworker from Pennsylvania once informed me that my accent wasn’t as “bad” as that of two other colleagues from eastern Massachusetts. Bad? No regional accent or dialect in the U.S. is “bad” — just as none are “good.”

Nor is any particular way of speaking — and we’re not talking grammar here — the “correct” way to speak American English. (Ask any linguist.) But not everyone remains convinced.

MisSpoken in Michigan

Map of USA with Michigan highlighted

Image via Wikipedia

When I lived in Michigan, scarcely a day went by when a native Michigander didn’t make a comment or joke about my accent, although few of them could place it exactly. They surmised only that I was from “somewhere out East.” (This is akin to a New Englander referring to Michigan as “one of those states in the middle of the country.”)

A manager at my Michigan workplace once opined that Midwesterners spoke “the right way” because that’s how TV news anchors spoke — i.e., with little or no accent. This, from a middle-aged man who had never lived in another part of Michigan, let alone another region of the country. His assertion doesn’t hold up, by the way. Listen to how Peter Jennings pronounces the word, “again,” and you’ll know that he grew up singing “O Canada.”

Michiganders, of course, have their own accent. (Can anyone say but-TOCK? How about “ruff”?  Elsewhere, that’s known as “roof.”) It may not be as conspicuous as, say, a Brooklyn or Dallas accent, but it’s an accent. This is especially true of Upper Peninsula natives (“Yoopers”), whose pronunciations are influenced not by newscasters but by the Canadians just across the border (can anyone say “eh”?), as well as by the linguistic legacy of immigrants from Finland, Sweden and other European countries.

Alas, this sad and misguided bias against Boston-speak is not limited to outsiders. I’ve known native Bay Staters who, once settled in another state or region, were quick to disown their accent. As for me, I plan to put my r’s in inappropriate places as long as I can find them.

So keep those jokes coming and those eyebrows raised. But if you ask me to describe how I would leave my automobile on the grounds of a certain elite university, don’t expect an answer.

Besides, I’d rather take the T to the Public Gahden any day.


© Janice Leary and My Point Exactly, 2010-2017. Unauthorized use of this material, including original photographs, without written permission from this blog’s author is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Janice Leary and My Point Exactly, with links to the original content.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. cathy permalink
    February 21, 2011 4:38 pm

    Thanks for defending the Boston accent. Mine is still strong even after living in Anchorage, Alaska, for 12 years, where people even thought I was English or Australian, and in Connecticut for almost 24 years — where some people think I just moved here from Boston!

    One of my favorite courses in college was linguistics. I would suggest that to all for insight into all American accents/dialects.

  2. Joyce aka sintwister permalink
    April 9, 2011 9:26 pm

    Great post! I love the Boston accent especially when I hear it in a movie because it seems to be amplified in movies. It’s one that can sound so wrong when not done right. I’ve been accused of living somewhere outside of Boston because my accent is “so different.” I don’t feel like that is a criticism at all.

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