One Last Question: Are Our Boston Accents Disappearing?
Welcome to “One Last Question,” a new series where research editor Matthew Reed Baker tackles your most Bostonian conundrums. Have a question? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At my wife’s recent family reunion in Lynnfield, I noticed that her parents have a much stronger Boston accent than my teenage kids, who barely have one. I’ve heard that our accent is disappearing: Why is that?
What a wicked good question, but hahd to ansah! You may remember the national headlines after a 2012 Dartmouth study determined that the New England accent was receding faster than Donnie Wahlberg’s hairline. Stories about the decline in regional accents in Philly, New York, and North Carolina soon followed, which led to handwringing over whether we’ll all speak exactly the same as one another 50 years from now.
The truth is, we’ve been debating this subject for at least 50 years already. Some blame the influence of broadcast media’s bland, mainstream voice, but a more convincing reason is that Americans simply move around a lot more now than they used to. As Brookline accent consultant Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker points out, previous generations usually grew up in “encapsulated” environments, where everyone spoke the same way, and didn’t travel as much at a young age.
Then there’s the Masshole stigma. Feinstein-Whittaker trains foreign-born professionals to lose their home-country accents, and has done the same for dozens of locals who want to sound neutral in the workplace. It’s unfair, she says, but “the Boston accent has the reputation of sounding less educated and lower class. In our erudite community, that doesn’t go over well.”
Still, we live in an era in which “Boston” has become its own pop-culture genre. Braintree native Nick Stevens, for example, long ago dropped his South Shore speak to get acting and commercial voice-over jobs. But he also created a foulmouthed alter ego, “Paul ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald,” which was the springboard to a decades-long sports-comedy career. As far as he’s concerned, the area’s endemic stubborn pride will always preserve our dropped Rs: “Those who have the accent speak with it like a badge of fahkin’ honor. There may be less of it, but just like scratch tickets, Dunkies, and Brady, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.” So perhaps we shouldn’t sound the death knell for the Boston accent just yet. Better to go back to debating which Hollywood actor has botched it the worst. (Hint: Tim Robbins, Mystic River.)
Have a question for Matthew Reed Baker? Email him at email@example.com.