Boston accent

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The 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.[1][2] Some of the characteristics of traditional Boston accents may be retreating, particularly among younger residents. Linguist William Labov, however, claims that, in the twenty-first century, there remains a relatively stable Boston accent.[3]

Phonological characteristics[edit]

Vowels of the traditional Boston accent
Front Central Back
lax tense lax tense lax tense
Close ɪ i ʊ u
Mid ɛ ə ɜ ʌ
Open æ a ɒ
Diphthongs aɪ   ɔɪ   aʊ   (ɪə   ʊə   ɛə   oə)

The phonemicity of the centering diphthongs /ɪə, ʊə, ɛə, oə/ depends on rhoticity; see below.

Instead of merging the historical "short o" (as in lot) with the "broad a" (as in father), the Boston accent merges it with the "aw" as in "paw", so that caught, cot, law, wand, rock, talk, doll, and wall all are pronounced with the same open back rounded vowel /ɒ/ that contrasts with the /a/ of father and spa, which means that even though dark has no /r/ in many Boston accents, it remains distinct from dock because it belongs to the STARTPALM class instead of the LOTTHOUGHTNORTH one: /ˈdak/ vs. /ˈdɒk/.[4][page needed] By contrast, New York accents and southern New England accents have /ˈkɔt/ for caught and /ˈkɑt/ for cot (phonetically [ˈkʰɔətʔ] and [ˈkʰɑ̈ʔ]). RP has /ˈkɔːt/ for the former and /ˈkɒt/ for the latter. 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.[citation needed]

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 is diphthongized to [eə] when it precedes a nasal consonant (but also, on a continuous scale in some other environments); thus, man is [ˈmeən] and planet is [ˈpʰleənəʔ]. 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 [ˈhɛəf], [ˈbɛəθ] and [ˈɡlɛəs], respectively.[5] This trend began around the early-mid to mid-twentieth century, replacing the older Boston accent's London-like "broad a" system, in which those same words are transferred over to the PALM class /a/ (see "Declining characteristics" below).[6]

The raised [ɛə] overlaps with the non-rhotic realization of SQUARE as [ɛə], so that half, bath and glass are effectively pronounced as if spelled haref, bareth and glaress (distinguished from glares by the final consonant). The difference is that they do not have an alternative pronunciation with postvocalic /r/, unlike SQUARE, and therefore those words do not belong to that lexical set.

/æ/ raising in North American English[7]
New York
,[8] New
New England,
Western US
Midland US,
/m, n/
fan, lamb, stand [ɛə][11][A][B] [ɛə][11] [ɛə] [ɛə~ɛjə][13] [ɛə][14] [ɛə][15][11]
/m, n/
animal, planet,
/ŋ/[16] frank, language [eɪ][17] [æ][16] [æ~æɛə][13] [ɛː~ɛj][14] [eː~ej][18]
bag, drag [ɛə][A] [æ][C] [æ][11]
Prevocalic /ɡ/ dragon, magazine [æ]
/b, d, ʃ/
grab, flash, sad [ɛə][A] [æ][19] [ɛə][19]
/f, θ, s/
ask, bath, half,
Otherwise as, back, happy,
  1. ^ a b c d In New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, most function words (am, can, had, etc.) and some learned or less common words (Afghan, alas, asterisk, etc.) have [æ].
  2. ^ In Philadelphia, the irregular verbs began, ran, swam, and wan (a local variant of won) have [æ].[12]
  3. ^ In Philadelphia, bad, mad, and glad alone have [ɛə].
  4. ^ In New York City, exceptional [ɛə] is found notably in avenue and variably before /dʒ/ as in imagine and magic.[20]

Boston accents make a greater variety of distinctions between short and long vowels before medial /r/ than many other modern American accents do: hurry /ˈhʌri/ and furry /ˈfɜri/; and mirror /ˈmɪrə/ and nearer /ˈnɪərə/, 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 Canadian raising, and it is less extreme in New England than in most of Canada. Furthermore, some Boston accents may raise either or both of the diphthongs (particularly /aʊ/) in not only voiceless but also voiced environments.

The nuclei of /oʊ/ and /u/ are significantly less fronted than in many American accents. Both have /u/ may be diphthongized to approximately [ʊu] or [ɵu].

Speakers of the more deeply urban varieties of the Boston accent may realize the English dental fricatives /θ, ð/ as the dental stops [t̪, d̪], giving rise to a phonemic distinction between dental and alveolar stops.


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.[21] 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 /ˈkad/ "cahd" and color /ˈkʌlə/ "culluh". Words such as weird /ˈwɪəd/ and square /ˈskwɛə/ feature centering diphthongs, which correspond to the sequences of close and mid vowels + /r/ in rhotic AmE.

A famous example is "Park the car in Harvard Yard", pronounced /pak ðə ˈkar‿ɪn ˌhavəd ˈjad/, or as if spelled "pahk the cah(r) in Hahvud Yahd".[22][23] 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 ˈtunər‿ɪz/.

Declining features[edit]

Many characteristics of the Boston accent may be retreating, particularly among younger residents. In the most "old-fashioned" of Boston accents, there may be a lingering resistance to the horse–hoarse merger. In Boston, horse has the /ɒ/ phoneme; in other words, the accent features the NORTHLOTTHOUGHT merger, so that tort, tot and taught are phonemically all /ˈtɒt/. It is distinct from the FORCE vowel, as in hoarse /ˈhoəs/. Other words fall into these distinct classes too, like for vs. four: /ˈfɒ/ vs. /ˈfoə/, mirroring RP as spoken at the beginning of the 20th century (though it had a distinct LOT vowel). This distinction is rapidly fading out of currency (with the words belonging to the NORTH class being transferred over to the FORCE class, undoing the merger of NORTH with LOTTHOUGHT), as it is in almost all regions of North America that still make it. For rhotic speakers, both NORTH and FORCE are GOAT + /r/: /ˈnoʊrθ, ˈfoʊrs/ (phonetically closer to [ˈnoɹθ, ˈfoɹs]). The remaining centering diphthongs also disappear in the rhotic variety, so that near, cure and square are /ˈnir, ˈkjur, ˈskweɪr/ (the last one is phonetically [ˈskweɹ]) instead of the traditional /ˈnɪə, ˈkjʊə, ˈskwɛə/.

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 (see Trap–bath split). 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)[24] with /a/: thus, half as /ˈhaf/ and bath as /ˈbaθ/.[25] 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).[6] 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.)[25] with this same set of words and, variably, other instances of short a too.[25] 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[edit]

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'."[26]

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.[27][28] 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.[29] 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.[27]

In The Heat, the family of Shannon Mullins all speak with the Boston accent and confusion arises from the pronunciation of the word narc as nahk /ˈnak/. 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.


Some words most famously associated with the Boston area are:

  • Bubbler or water bubbler: Drinking fountain.[30][31] This term is also used in Wisconsin and Australia.
  • Clicker: Remote control, generally for a television.
  • Frappe /ˈfræp/: 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".[32]
  • Hoodsie: A small cup of ice cream, the kind that comes with a flat wooden spoon (from HP Hood, the dairy that sells them.)[33] Also (very offensive slang), a teenage girl.[34] Elsewhere occasionally known as a dixie cup.
  • Jimmies: Sprinkles.[35] 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".[36]
  • Spa: A convenience store that has tonic (see below) on tap and (usually) sells sandwiches.[37][38][39][40][41]
  • Tonic /ˈtɒnɪk/: Any sweet, carbonated soft drink (known elsewhere as "soda" or "pop").[42][page needed]
  • Whiffle: A crew cut or male haircut done with electric clippers.[34]
  • 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"[34] (the Massachusetts Department of Transportation even has signs reminding motorists, with Boston phonetic spelling, to "Use Yah Blinkah"),[43] packie (or package store) for "liquor store",[44][45] and rotary for "traffic circle" (these full-speed circular intersections being common in Greater Boston).[35]

Notable lifelong native speakers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schneider, Edgar; Bernd Kortmann (2005). A Handbook of Varieties of English: A Multi-Media Reference Tool. Mouton de Gruyter. p. 270. ISBN 978-3-11-017532-5.
  2. ^ Millward, C.M. (1996). A Biography of the English Language. Wadsworth Publishing. p. 353. ISBN 978-0-15-501645-3.
  3. ^ Labov, William (2010). The Politics of Language Change: Dialect Divergence in America. The University of Virginia Press. Pre-publication draft. p. 53.
  4. ^ Labov et al. 2006 The Atlas of North American English Berlin: DeGruyter
  5. ^ Wood, Jim. (2010). "Short-a in Northern New England". Journal of English Linguistics 20:1–31. pp. 146, 149.
  6. ^ a b Wood, 2010, p. 139.
  7. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 182.
  8. ^ a b c Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 173–4.
  9. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 260–1.
  10. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 238–9.
  11. ^ a b c d Duncan (2016), pp. 1–2.
  12. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 238.
  13. ^ a b Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 178, 180.
  14. ^ a b Boberg (2008), p. 145.
  15. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 175–7.
  16. ^ a b Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 183.
  17. ^ Baker, Mielke & Archangeli (2008).
  18. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 181–2.
  19. ^ a b Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 82, 123, 177, 179.
  20. ^ Labov (2007), p. 359.
  21. ^ Irwin, Patricia; Nagy, Naomi (2007). "Bostonians /r/ Speaking: A Quantitative Look at (R) in Boston". University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics. 13 (2).
  22. ^ Vorhees, Mara (2009). Boston. Con Pianta. Ediz. Inglese. Lonely Planet. p. 52. ISBN 978-1-74179-178-5.
  23. ^ Randall, Eric (August 25, 2015). "Blame Harvard for this annoying Boston accent test". The Boston Globe.
  24. ^ Wood, 2010, p. 138.
  25. ^ a b c Wells (1982), p. 523.
  26. ^ Stewart, John et al. (2014). The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book) Teacher's Edition: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. Grand Central Publishing.
  27. ^ a b Gottlieb, Jeremy (2017). Hollywood has a Boston problem". The Washington Post.
  28. ^ "Setting Your Movie in Boston? Bettah Get the Accent Right". NPR. August 2014.
  29. ^ Brown, John Robbie (2 July 2007). "Kennedy backs city's 'Simpsons Movie' campaign". NY Times Co.
  30. ^ Message 1: Summary of 'bubbler', archived from the original on November 19, 2000
  31. ^ "Bubbler map - Wisconsin Englishes". Archived from the original on 2011-07-22. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
  32. ^ Heller, Carolyn B. "Drinking a Cabinet: How to Talk Like a New Englander". C.B. Heller. Archived from the original on February 19, 2014. Retrieved February 2, 2014.
  33. ^ "Hoodsie". Glossary at Archived from the original on February 11, 2012.
  34. ^ a b c Boston To English Dictionary at
  35. ^ a b "Regional Vocabulary". The New York Times. 2006-03-17. Retrieved 2010-04-26.
  36. ^ Harrison, Mim (2011). Wicked Good Words: From Johnnycakes to Jug Handles, a Roundup of America's Regionalisms. Penguin. ISBN 978-1101543399.
  37. ^ "Winship Spa - Brighton, MA". Retrieved 2012-06-18.
  38. ^ "Montrose Spa - Porter Square - Cambridge, MA". Retrieved 2012-06-18.
  39. ^ "Hillside Spa Cardoza Brothers - Beacon Hill - Boston, MA". Retrieved 2012-06-18.
  40. ^ "Hodgkin's Spa - Somerville, MA". Retrieved 2012-06-18.
  41. ^ "Sam's Spa Convenience - About - Google". Google Maps. Retrieved 2012-06-18.[permanent dead link]
  42. ^ Labov et al., Atlas of North American English
  43. ^ "'Use Yah Blinkah': Wicked good safety advice". Boston Globe.
  44. ^ Dictionary of American Regional English
  45. ^ Gordon, Heather (2004). Newcomer's Handbook For Moving To And Living In Boston: Including Cambridge, Brookline, And Somerville. First Books. pp. 14. ISBN 978-0912301549.
  46. ^ Roberts, Sam (2006-01-16). "Mayor's Accent Deserts Boston for New York". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
  47. ^ Rubin, Joel (2008-12-07). "Police chief says he still has plenty to prove". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
  48. ^ Miller, Gregory E. (2018) "Bill Burr vows to never become an ‘old cornball’". New York Post. NYP Holdings, Inc.
  49. ^ Sullivan, Jim (2001-04-18). "Lenny Clarke Deftly Handles Nightschtick". The Boston Globe.
  50. ^ Cumbie, Ty (2004-10-30). "Chick Corea". All About Jazz. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  51. ^ Mitter, Siddhartha (2008-02-29). "A banjo, a piano, and two willing masters". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  52. ^ Juul, Matt (2015). "Watch: Dorchester comic riffs on Boston, Gronk, and more". Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC.
  53. ^ Calhoun, Ada (2004-03-29). "Did You Hear The One About The @&%#! Comic?". New York. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  54. ^ Sletcher, Michael, ed. (2004). New England: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 186. ISBN 0-313-32753-X.
  55. ^ Concannon, Jim (May 12, 2009). "Mel's Vision". The Boston Globe.
  56. ^ King, Dennis (1989). Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism. New York: Doubleday. p. 306.
  57. ^ Littlefield, Kinney (2008-07-01). "Radio's 'Car Talk' guys reluctantly tackle TV". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
  58. ^ Leibovich, Mark (2005-05-04). "Oh, Brother: 'Car Talk' Guy Puts Mouth in Gear". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
  59. ^ Roberts, Randy (2005). The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub: A Random History of Boston Sports. Harvard University Press. p. 222
  60. ^ 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.
  61. ^ Moraski, Lauren (2014-10-30). "Joey McIntyre on appeal of "The McCarthys," future of NKOTB". CBS News.
  62. ^ Mooney, Brian C. (2006-02-19). "The nonpolitician who would be governor". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
  63. ^ a b Baker, Billy (2013-11-17). "In Walsh, students of Bostonese have found their avatah". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2015-06-15.
  64. ^ Gardner, Amy (2009-02-11). "A Time to Reevaluate Family Ties". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-02-27.
  65. ^ Allis, Sam (2004-01-25). "It's tough to talk like a true Bostonian". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-02-27.
  66. ^ Bizjak, Marybeth (February 2007). "Mr. Fix-It". Sacramento Magazine. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  67. ^ Jensen, Sean (2004-12-03). "Despite his unlikely build, Vikings' Wiggins gets it done at tight end". Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Archived from the original on 2014-06-11. Retrieved 2009-02-26.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Recordings of the Boston accent