The Boston accent has brought many an actor to grief, especially these days as films about the city just keep coming. George Clooney famously botched it in Perfect Storm, but not as badly as Kevin Costner did in 13 Days. Mark Wahlberg, who grew up in Southie, gets it down perfectly, of course. So does Matt Damon, even though he grew up across the river in the People’s Republic (Cambridge).
Back in the day, actors used to have to lose their Boston accents if they wanted work. Leonard Nimoy, who grew up in the West End, had a wicked bad one. He got rid of it before he won the part of Spawk from Stah Trek.
One reason actors have such a hard time with the Boston accent is its complexity. Dropping the ‘r’ is only part of it. You have to put it back in some places, sometimes where it doesn’t belong. And you also have to say ‘aw’ for ‘o’ or ‘ah’ (‘hawkey’ for ‘hockey’). But you only do that sometimes – knowing when is the key.
And then on top of the weeid (weird) pronunciation, you also have to master the slang that goes with the accent.
R-less Boston Accent
If you want to sound smaht, you’ll describe the ‘r-less’ Boston accent as ‘non-rhotic speech.’ You’ve no doubt heard the quintessential non-rhotic Boston phrase: ‘Pahk the cah in Hah-vahd yahd,’ right? And you pronounce all the vowels the way you say ‘ah’ at the dentist.
Or do you?
Actually, Bostonians pronounce the ‘r’ when it comes before a vowel, though they do it softly. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear a Bostonian say, ‘pahk the cahr in Hah-vahd yahd.’ But if he had more than one vehicle, he would ‘pahk the cahs in Hah-vahd yahd.’
Plus, Bostonians talk fast, and they tend to mush their consonants together. So ‘Hah-vahd’ usually sounds more like ‘Hah-vid.’
And when you drop the ‘r,’ remember your voice goes up in pitch.
Jordan’s Furniture, Boston Accent Style
There’s more than that to the way Bostonians deal with their ‘r’s. When the vowel is ‘er,’ you don’t drop the ‘r.’ So, “The Gahd’n went crazy when Larry Bird stole the ball.” Boston has at least two gahd’ns: Boston Garden and the Public Garden. Both are just ‘the gahd’n.’
Another signature sound of Boston speech: ‘or’ comes out as ‘aw.” So ‘Jordan’s Furniture’ sounds like ‘Jawdin’s Furnichah.’
For more than fawty (forty) years, Barry and Eliot Tatelman blanketed the airwaves with comical Jordan’s Furniture commercials. “We don’t sell those cheap sets that fall apaht,” they’d say. “You can tell when you open a dressa draw!”
Not only do they get the accent right, they even sold a chair once called the Boston Accent.
That Pesky O
As audiobook narrator Matt Haynes points out, Bostonians don’t substitute ‘aw’ for ‘o’ if preceded by an ‘s,’ ‘ng,’ ‘f,’ ‘l’ or ‘th.’
Boston Mayor Kevin White used to say ‘mother of God’ a lot. It came out ‘muh-thuhr aw Gawd.’
Or you might get ‘stawpped in Bahston by a statie for bangin’ a U-ey.’ (Translation: ‘stopped in Boston by a state policeman for making a U-turn.’)
The Intrusive R
Bostonians like to add ‘r’s’ at the end of words, like ‘Linder’ and ‘idear.’ Many people remember President Kennedy’s trouble with the Russians in ‘Cuber.’ But the Kennedys don’t really have a Boston accent. They have a Kennedy accent, a unique (some say pretentious) mix of the Transatlantic and Boston accents. So don’t mimic Mayor Quimby on the animated television series, The Simpsons, unless you’re making fun of a Kennedy.
You can listen to JFK pronounce “Jordan Marsh” in a Kennedy accent in this video here.
Boston politicians naturally have their own lingo. They raise campaign funds at a ‘time.’ They disclose damaging information about an opponent (‘oppo’) by ‘droppin’ a dime on’ or ‘diming out’ that person. Campaign volunteers ‘hold a sign’ for a candidate. It’s a good way to ‘get on the state’ (a sweet job, say at Massport) if your candidate wins.
In real Bostonspeak, the intrusive ‘r’ also shows up where ‘r’s’ don’t usually go — like before a vowel. So if you want to know where your muthah went, you might say, “Is Mar upstairs?” (Thanks to Matt Damon for that one!)
Or you might find yourself ‘soring wood’ or ‘making a withdroral from an ATM.’
Talk Fast and Drop Your Consonants
In the entire United States, only people in Oregon and Minnesota talk faster than Bostonians. So consonants often get left behind. “Why did you…?” equals “Whyja?” “Did you eat already?” becomes “Jeet orreddy?”
If the answer to “Jeet?” is no, you could go for chowda (chowder) or a spuckie (a sandwich, though that’s fading). Wash it all down with tawnic (tonic, also fading) or soder (soda), the proper names for carbonated soft drinks. Finish it off with a Hoodsie (ice cream cup). But ‘hoodsie’ also refers to a pretty teen-aged girl. She probably wears earrings in her PSDS (pierced ears).
When you buy b’daydas (the noble spud) at the Stah Mahket (Star Market), you probably need a carriage (shopping cart). Bring your pockabook (pocketbook). Same goes for the fahmisee (pharmacy) and the packie (liquor store).
‘Bubbler,’ for some reason, refers to ‘water fountain’ in both Boston and Wisconsin. Good luck finding one. And if you order a regular coffee from the Dunkies onna conna, you’ll get cream and sugar in it.
Place Names per the Boston Accent
Medford, a city nawtha Bahston, is ‘MED-feh’ or ‘MEH-feh’ to someone who doesn’t live there. But to someone who does live there, it’s ‘MED-fid’ or ‘MEF-id.’ No one ever calls it Medford.
Many Massachusetts place names have consonants on paper but not in reality. So Worcester becomes Woostuh, Leicester Lestuh, Gloucester Glosstuh.
Bahston has a lot of neighborhoods you can get to on the T: the Nawth End, Southie, Dot or Dawchestah, JP (Jamaica Plain) and Rozzy (Roslindale). West Roxbury is generally just West Roxbury. Townies live in Charlestown, once the armored-car-robbery capital of the world.
If you happen to drive around Bahston, you might find yourself on an av – Dotav (Dorchester Avenue), Massav (Massachusetts Avenue) or Commav (Commonwealth Avenue).
A lot of people go down the Cape, maybe to P-town. The traffic on the expressway can back up for days (a long time), so you might have to take the breakdown lane (shoulder). But they got rid of the rotary (traffic circle) just before the Sagamore Bridge, and that helps a little bit.
[Ed note: Bostonians will give directions to lost Midwesterners with the extremely unhelpful, “Before you get to…” As in “Before you get to where the old K-Mart used to be.” Most directions also include the Dunkies onna conna (the ‘Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner’), also extremely unhelpful because there’s a Dunkies on every conna.]
Other Boston Accented Place Names
Before you get to the Cape (grr), you’ll hit the Irish Riviera, also known as the South Shore. Scituate (Sit-u-it) and Marshfield (Mahshfield) form the epicenter of the Irish Riviera, where some wealthy people live in Ka-chingham (Hingham) and Deluxebury (Duxbury). Not-so-wealthy Quincy has a z (Quinzy), though the sixth president’s name doesn’t.
Re-VEE-ah (Revere) lies just nawtha Boston and PEA-biddy (Peabody) lies nawtha Revere. You might hear someone say, “Dawn breaks over Marblehead,” a version of ‘duh’ that refers to the coastal town next to Salem.
‘Lynn, Lynn, City of sin, You never go out the way you came in,’ refers to the North Shore city with a reputation for vice and corruption. Back in the 1990s, one mayor tried to change the city’s image with a new name – Ocean Pahk. He failed. You still won’t go out the way you come in.
To get to Woostuh or anyplace westuh Boston, you take the MassPike. Accents start changing westuh Woostuh.
Bostonians embrace spawts (sports), with even more fervor than they embrace politics.
The Sawx (Red Sox) play at Fenway, where players hit homers over the Green Monster and past the Pesky Pole. Only Ted Williams could hit one into the Red Seat. The Big Dig (highway construction project) created a tunnel named after him, ‘The Ted.’
The Pats, or the Patsies, play in Foxboro, where Tom Brady once played as the Goat (greatest of all time). He might have gotten a tunnel too, if he hadn’t gone to Tamper Bay.
The B’s or the Broons (Bruins) and the Celtics play at the Gahden. Bawby Oah was the greatest Broon evah, but has yet to get a tunnel.
Four colleges play hawkey in the Beanpot tournament every year: Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern. If you get a law degree from BC and went to BC and BC High, you’re a Triple Eagle. A graduate of both Harvard and Harvard Medical School is a 4-Her. To a kid from Somerville (or Slumerville), a Harvard student is a Bahney (Barney).
If you find all of this baffling, but you want to fit in as a Bostonian, there’s a simple remedy: Talk fast and hate the Yankees.
Images: Harvard Square and Harvard Yard By User:Chensiyuan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9954526; Jordan’s Furniture By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41771437; Boston By Riptor3000, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2839215; Dunkin’ Donuts by By Michael Rivera – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57287297. The MassPike By Nathan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23296975. This story was updated in 2022.