Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Boston accent is characteristic not only of the city of Boston itself, but more generally of all of eastern Massachusetts. It shares much in common with the accents of New Hampshire and Maine; the three regions are frequently grouped together by sociolinguists under the cover term Eastern New England accent, which, together with New York-New Jersey English, forms a part of Northeastern American English. The internationally best-known user of the Boston accent was probably John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
- how are you?
Deletion of post-vocalic [r]
The traditional Boston accent is non-rhotic; in other words, the phoneme [r] does not appear at the end of a syllable or immediately before a consonant. Thus, there is no [r] in words like park [paːk], car [kaː], and Harvard [haːvəd]. After high and mid-high vowels, the [r] is replaced by [ə] or another neutral central vowel like [ɨ]: weird [wiɨd], square [skweə]. Similarly, unstressed [ɝ] ("er") is replaced by [ə], [ɐ], or [ɨ], as in color [kʌlə].
In the most traditional and old-fashioned Boston accents, what is in other dialects [ɔr] becomes a low back vowel [ɒ]: corn is [kɒːn], pronounced the same or almost the same as con.
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. More speakers lose [r] after other vowels than lose [ɝ].
The Boston accent possesses both "linking r" and "intrusive r": that is to say, a [r] will not be lost at the end of a word if the next word begins with a vowel, and indeed a [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 tunərɪz]
Some speakers who are natively non-rhotic or partially non-rhotic attempt to change their accent by restoring [r] to word-final position. For example, on the NPR program Car Talk, hosted by two Bostonian brothers, one host has castigated the other on air for saying [kaː] instead of [kɑɹ]. Occasionally such speakers may hypercorrect and "restore" [r] to a word that never originally had it. This leads, for instance, to pronunciations such as [tunər] and [aidiər] for tuna and idea in isolation.
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 the only region in North America where the distinction between the vowels in words like father and spa on the one hand and words like bother and hot on the other hand is securely maintained: the former contain [aː] ([faːðə], [spaː]), and the latter [ɒː] ([bɒːðə], [hɒːt]). This means that even though heart has no [r], it remains distinct from hot because its vowel quality is different: [haːt]. By contrast, the accent of New York uses 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.
On the other hand, the Boston accent (unlike the Providence, Rhode Island accent) merges the two classes exemplified by caught and cot: both become [kɒːt]. So caught, cot, law, water, rock, talk, doll, and wall all have exactly the same vowel, [ɒː]. For some speakers, as mentioned above, words like corn and horse also have this vowel. By contrast, New York accents have [kɔːt] for caught and [kɑːt] for cot; Received Pronunciation has [kɔːt] and [kɒt], respectively.
Some older Boston speakers—the ones who have a low vowel in words like corn [kɒːn]—maintain a distinction between horse and for on the one hand and hoarse and four on the other hand. The former are in the same class as corn, as [hɒːs] and [fɒː], and the latter are [hoəs] and [foə]. This distinction is rapidly fading out of currency, as it is in almost all regions of North America that still make it.
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: thus man is [meən] and planet is [pleənət]. Boston shares this system with the accents of the southern part of the Midwest. By contrast, Received Pronunciation uses [æ] regardless of whether the next consonant is nasal or not, and New York uses [eə] before a nasal at the end of a syllable ([meən]) but not before a nasal between two vowels ([plænət]).
A feature that some Boston English speakers share with Received Pronunciation is the so-called Broad A: in some words that in other accents have [æ], such as half and bath, that vowel is replaced with [aː]: [haːf], [baːθ]. (In Received Pronunciation, the Broad A vowel is [ɑː].) 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, but it is still noticeable.
Boston accents make a greater variety of distinctions between short and long vowels before medial [r] than many other modern American accents do: Boston accents maintain the distinctions between the vowels in marry [mæri], merry [mEri], and Mary [meəri], hurry [hʌri] and furry [fɝri], mirror [mɪrə] and nearer [niərə], though some of these distinctions are somewhat endangered. Boston shares these distinctions with both New York and Received Pronunciation, but the Midwest, for instance, has lost them entirely.
- It has been said that some speakers from the North Shore sometimes insert [ʋ] before [r] in such words as really [ʋriəli], remember [ʋəmɛmbə].
- Words stressed on antepenultimate (third-from-the-end) syllable (principal, economical, certificate) may have voiced final consonant (marked in bold in the examples above): economical [ɛkənɔməgəl].
Recordings of Boston Accents
- McCarthy, John (1993). A case of surface constraint violation. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 38. 169–95.
- George Mason University. The Speech Accent Archive, 22 September, 2004.
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