Where does the Boston accent come from?
By Ross Cristantiello
March 27, 2023 | 5:00 AM
Tell someone from Boston to “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd,” and you’re more likely to get an eye roll than a chuckle. The Boston accent is everywhere, from movies to TV shows to late-night sketch comedy. It has been endlessly imitated, rarely convincingly and often ridiculously.
But if one strips away all the noise and looks closely at the specifics of the accent itself, including its origins, an entirely new world opens up. An accent that is often played for laughs in the media can be a valuable lens through which to examine the region’s history and the ways that its people both cling to and reject their roots.
Defining the Boston accent
Before getting there it is necessary to lay out what actually makes the English spoken in Eastern Massachusetts unique. This is no simple task. Defining any accent is not as easy as just highlighting the most pronounced parts of it. An accent is best thought of as a collection of traits that overlap and mix in special ways, Boston University Linguistics Professor Daniel Erker explained.
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“What makes a variety of a language unique is the constellation of features that co-occur in the speech of the people who live in the area where it’s used,” he said.
So, what are the various stars that make up the constellation known as the Boston accent? There’s one that gets all the attention: the dropped-R, alternatively known as R-lessness or non-rhoticity.
One of the most common sound changes in languages around the world is consonant reduction. Consonants very often get deleted or weakened, especially when they occur at the end of syllables or words, Erker said.
The letter “R” itself is special because it often gets pronounced like a vowel. Many of the world’s languages do not make a distinction between “R” sounds and “L” sounds, Erker said. Both belong to a category of speech sounds called liquids. It’s common to hear an “R” sound pronounced as an “L” in many instances, and vice versa.
Another distinctive trait of the English spoken in and around Boston concerns the vowel sound in the words “Mary,” “merry” and “marry,” Erker said. Most English speakers in the U.S. pronounce all three more or less the same. Many native New Englanders pronounce all three with slightly separate vowel sounds.
The merging of these vowel sounds represents a broader way of looking at the variations between different ways of speaking the same language.
“A lot of the differences between accents, in general, is just asking, ‘Did you merge these vowels or not?’” explained MIT Linguistics Professor Edward Flemming.
The specifics of the Boston accent can also be seen in the ways that people pronounce a word like “hot.” In New England, this “short O” sound will often get changed subconsciously. Speakers in the region may pronounce “hot” in a way that sounds more like “hawt,” Erker said.
Other quirks of the Boston accent can be found in the pronunciation of words like “bath,” Erker added. Those with the accent will sometimes change the vowel sound to a “broad A,” meaning that the “A” in “bath” ends up sounding like the “A” in words like “water” and “father.”
On top of all these changes in pronunciation, the stereotypical Boston dialect is also defined by lexical terms. This concerns the use of words like “wicked” as an intensifier, or “jimmies” to describe the sprinkles that go on ice cream. An accent refers specifically to unique ways of pronunciation, while a dialect takes into account a wider range of language features like grammar and vocabulary.
One of the most famous people to use a Boston accent was President John F. Kennedy. In 2017, Harvard University released a recording of a college-aged JFK. Recorded in 1937, it is believed to be the earliest voice recording of Kennedy. He was tasked with making a speech about the appointment of Justice Hugo Black to the Supreme Court.
Harvard University · John F. Kennedy recording for public speaking class at Harvard, 1937
Origins of the Boston accent
So, where did the Boston accent actually come from? It is difficult to trace the various traits of the accent, but researchers have generally concluded that the Boston accent is rooted in the south of England.
British English accents were rhotic all the way from the Anglo-Saxon period until the 17th Century, when “R” sounds began to “soften,” according to a 2007 study from the University of Pennsylvania.
The “R” and “L” sounds often undergo a process that linguists call vocalization, Erker said. This means that the hard consonant sounds gradually “weaken” and begin getting pronounced like vowels, before disappearing entirely.
Since Massachusetts was a British colony at the time, that change eventually made its way to Boston and into other parts of New England.
“New England is actually fascinating for the way that the accents emerge from the ways of settlement,” said Joe Pater, chair of the Linguistics Department at UMass Amherst.
Most of the patterns of speaking throughout the region today are the result of how settlers moved across New England. Many linguists think about the English of the region not as “Boston accent vs. non-Boston accent,” but rather as “eastern New England accent vs. western New England accent.”
James Stanford, chair of the Linguistics Department at Dartmouth, laid out the reasons for this thinking in his 2019 book “New England English.” Research shows that a major group of English-speaking settlers moved outward from Eastern Massachusetts to western New Hampshire and eastern Vermont from around 1726 to 1776.
Around the same time, other groups moved upward from Connecticut into Vermont and Western Massachusetts during the later parts of the 18th Century.
“The settlers on the eastern side tended to have greater contact with the Boston seacoast and, by extension, southeast England,” Stanford wrote.
Like those in Boston, people throughout eastern New England were more likely to participate in the “shift to R-lessness” that had become established in England first, according to Stanford.
This “softening” and eventual dropping of “R” sounds appears to have spread from the south of England through ports up and down the eastern coast of America, influencing the accents found in cities like Charleston and New York City, Flemming said.
Of course, language and accents are not set in stone. They are constantly shifting based on a complex web of factors.
“Language always changes. People are always complaining about ‘how kids talk,’ but that’s been going on forever. It’s like asking the tides to stop. It’s not going to happen,” Flemming said.
How the Boston accent is changing
Those shifts are continuing every day. In his research, Stanford found that many traditional features of New England English — including the iconic “R-lessness” — are quickly receding among current generations of speakers.
Age appears to be a major factor. The line delineating eastern New England English from western New England English that existed for generations seems to be receding for young people back toward Boston. Stanford’s research found that some urban neighborhoods like South Boston are retaining the traditional markers of the Boston accent better than others.
Researchers also say that social and racial differences play a big factor in how and where the accent is receding. Gentrification and fluctuating levels of immigration complicate things even further, as does peoples’ tendency to purposefully change the way that they speak in order to fit in socially.
“Boston used to have an outsized influence on the ways of speaking of the greater region, that seems to be gone,” Erker said. “As gentrification in the city continues and as more non-U.S.-born individuals come to live in Boston, I think the influence of that regional variety is going to diminish even further.”
If the Boston accent is best thought of as a constellation of stars, each a different feature of the accent, are they all winking out at the same rate?
The answer appears to be that they are not, Erker said. When speakers of the same language come into contact with those that speak another accent, the features of their speech that get modified first tend to be the ones that they are most aware of.
With the Boston accent, this is usually “R-lessness.” Therefore, the dropping of “R” sounds is likely disappearing quicker than other, more subtle aspects of the Boston accent.
Throughout his time teaching at UMass, Pater said he has heard from students that the typical “R” dropping in the Boston accent can be stigmatized, and that students coming to Amherst from Eastern Massachusetts consciously try to eliminate it from their accents.
But that may be changing, said Chloe Ostiguy, a senior at UMass Amherst studying linguistics. Ostiguy said that 30 years ago, her uncle moved from Brockton to UMass and completely stopped using his Boston accent.
“Now I think people are OK with talking the way that they would talk at home… I think it was more stigmatized back then compared to how it is now.” Ostiguy said.
Fleming stressed that when thinking about an accent disappearing, one should not see it as a way of speaking being replaced by a baseline, “normal” version of the language.
“Everyone has an accent,” he said. “It’s not that Boston people have an accent and they’re losing it and then they won’t have an accent. They’re just getting a different accent.”
Imitating a Boston accent may be a quick way to get some laughs, or to make a movie set in the city more believable. But taking a deeper dive into accents, dialects, and language as a whole can be incredibly illuminating, Erker said.
“Language is quite possibly the only thing that distinguishes us from every other non-human animal on Earth,” he said. “If that is true, which I believe it is and most linguists do too, then it’s essential to what it means to be a human.”