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. However, linguist William Labov claims that, in the twenty-first century, there remains a relatively stable Boston accent.
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||Boston phoneme||Example words|
before /ɡ/: [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|
|[ɪ~ɪ̈~ə]||island, gamut, wasted|
|/iː/||[i(ː)]||beam, chic, fleet|
|/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|
|/ɑːr/||[äː~aː] (intervocalic: [äːɹ~aːɹ])||barn, car, park|
|/ɛər/||[ɛə~ɛɜ] (intervocalic: [ɛəɹ])||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜːr/||[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|
|/ɔːr/||[ɔə~ɒə~ɒː] (intervocalic: [ɔəɹ~ɒəɹ~ɒːɹ])||horse, for, war|
|[ɔə~oɜ] (intervocalic: [ɔəɹ~oɜɹ])||hoarse, four, wore|
|/ʊər/||[ʊə~ʊɜ] (intervocalic: [ʊɹ])||moor, poor, tour|
|/jʊər/||[jʊə~jʊɜ] (intervocalic: [jʊɹ])||cure, Europe, pure|
Boston and surrounding northeastern New England form the only major region in North America where the distinction between the vowel phonemes "broad a" (as in father) and "short o" (as in bother) is often maintained (with some New York accents also following this pattern). Examples include words like father and spa which contain [aː] ([ˈfaːðə], [spaː]) and bother and dock which contain [ɒː] ([ˈbɒːðə], [dɒːk]) being different. This means that even though dark has no [ɹ] in many Boston accents, it remains distinct from dock because its vowel quality is different: [daːk] vs. [dɒːk]. In this way, Bostonians align with most Britons, but unlike most other Americans, who use the same vowel in both of these classes: [ɑː].[page needed]
On the other hand, the Boston accent merges the "short o" with the "aw" phoneme: the two classes exemplified by caught and cot thus both become an often long and rounded [ɒː], so that caught, cot, law, wand, rock, talk, doll, and wall all are pronounced with the same vowel. By contrast, New York accents and southern New England accents have [kɔət] for caught and [kät] for cot and the London accents have [kɔːt~koːt] and [kɒt~kɔt], respectively. 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 becomes raised to 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 [ˈpleənət]. 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 [glɛəs], respectively. This trend began around the early-mid to mid-twentieth century, replacing the older Boston accent's London-like "broad a" system to an opener [a] sound in those same example words (see "Declining characteristics" below).
|New York City|
|/r/||open||lax [æ]||tense [eə]||tense
|/b/, /d/, /dʒ/,
/ɡ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/
|lax [æ]||tense [eə]|
|/f/, /s/, /θ/||closed|
|all other consonants||lax [æ]|
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. Both have /uː/ may be diphthongized to approximately [ʊu] or [ɵu].
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 [kaːd] "cahd". 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 // is replaced by [ə], [ɐ], or [ɨ], as in color [ˈkʌɫə]. A famous example is "Park the car in Harvard Yard", pronounced [paːk ðə ˈkaːɹ‿ɪn ˈhaːvəd ˈjaːd], 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 tʰuːnəɹɪz].
Many characteristics of the Boston accent may be retreating, particularly among some younger residents. In the most "old-fashioned" of Boston accents, there may be a lingering resistance to the horse–hoarse merger, so that what in other dialects /ɔr/ becomes a low back vowel [ɒ]: horse is [hɒːs], pronounced the same or almost the same as hoss, while the word hoarse is somewhat different [hoəs]. Other words fall into these distinct classes too, like for vs. four: [fɒː] vs. [foə]. 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.
A feature that Boston speakers once shared with greater London, 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 [aː~ɑː]: thus, half as [häːf] and bath as [bäːθ]. 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. The popular American TV series M*A*S*H had, from its sixth season onwards, the Boston-born upper-class surgeon character Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, portrayed by David Ogden Stiers, always spoken with his characterization'a noticeable Boston accent.
In The Heat, the family of Shannon Mullins all speak with the Boston accent and confusion arrises from the pronunciation of the word narc 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.
Some words most famously associated with the Boston area are:
- Bubbler or water bubbler: Drinking fountain, pronounced "bubblah". This term is also used in Wisconsin and Australia.
- Frappe (pronounced "frap"): 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: Any sweet, carbonated soft drink (known elsewhere as "soda" or "pop").[page needed]
- 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"
- 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"
- Eastern New England English
- New England English
- North American English regional phonology
- Regional vocabularies of American English
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- Message 1: Summary of 'bubbler', archived from the original on November 19, 2000
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- "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.
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- "'Use Yah Blinkah': Wicked good safety advice". Boston Globe.
- 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.
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- 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.
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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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|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