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The Boston accent is a regional accent of the American English dialect spoken in northeastern New England—particularly the city of Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts. Sociolinguists had grouped regions to include Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut for completeness; however, the phonological center forming what is considered the Eastern New England dialect region consists primarily of the southern eastern coast region of Maine, assimilating down through southern eastern New Hampshire where it picks up some of its most prominent linguistic characteristics, through eastern coast of northern Massachusetts but then drops off significantly before Cape Cod and the island region.
The best-known features of the Boston accent are non-rhoticity and broad A. It is most prominent in often traditionally Irish or Italian Boston neighborhoods and surrounding cities and towns.
The traditional Boston accent is non-rhotic; in other words, the phoneme /r/ does not appear in coda position (where in English phonotactics it must precede other consonants, see English phonology#Coda), as in many dialects of English in England and all dialects of Australian English; card therefore becomes [kʰaːd]. After high and mid-high vowels, the /r/ is replaced by [ə] or another neutral central vowel like [ɨ]: weird [wiɨd], square [ˈskweə]. Similarly, unstressed /ɝ/ ("er") is replaced by [ə], [ɐ], or [ɨ], as in color [ˈkʰʌɫə]. A famous example is "Park the car in Harvard Yard", pronounced [pʰaːk ðə ˈkʰaːɹ‿ɪn ˈhaːvəd ˈjaːd], or as if spelled "pahk the cah(r) in Hahvuhd Yahd". Note that the r in car would usually be pronounced in this case, because the following word begins with a vowel (see linking R below).
Although not all Boston-area speakers are non-rhotic, this remains the feature most widely associated with the region. As a result, it is frequently the butt of jokes about Boston, as in Jon Stewart's America, in which he jokes that the Massachusetts Legislature ratified everything in John Adams' 1780 Massachusetts Constitution "except the letter 'R'".
In the most traditional, "old-fashioned", Boston accents, what is in other dialects /ɔr/ becomes a low back vowel [ɒ]: corn is [kʰɒːn], pronounced the same or almost the same as con or cawn.
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 (generally as [ɚ] or [əɹ]).
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 tʰuːnəɹɪz]
There are also a number of Boston accent speakers with rhoticity, but they occasionally delete /r/ only in unaccented syllables, e.g., mother or words before a consonant, e.g., car hop.
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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 [ɑː] ([ˈfɑːðə], [spɑː]), and the latter [ɒː] ([ˈbɒːðə], [hɒːt]). This means that even though heart has no [ɹ], it remains distinct from hot because its vowel quality is different: [haːt] vs. [hɒːt]. By contrast, most US English uses the same or almost 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 merges the two classes exemplified by caught and cot: both become [kʰɒːt]. So caught, cot, law, water, rock, talk, doll, and wall all have the same vowel, [ɒː]. For some speakers, as mentioned above, words like corn and horse also have this vowel. By contrast, New York accents and southern New England accents have [kʰɔːt] for caught and [kʰɑːt] for cot; Received Pronunciation has [kʰɔːt] and [kʰɒt], respectively.
Some older Boston speakers – the ones who have a low vowel in words like corn [kʰɒːn] – do not undergo the so-called horse–hoarse merger, i.e., they maintain a distinction between horse and for on the one hand and hoarse and four on the other. The former are in the same class as corn, as [hɒːs] and [fɒː], and the latter are [ˈhowəs] and [ˈfowə]. 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 (but also, on a continuous scale in some other environments); thus, man is [meən] and planet is [ˈpʰɫeənət]. Boston shares this system with the accents of the southern part of the Midwest and the major cities of the West, though the raising of this vowel in Boston tends to be more noticeable and extreme than elsewhere. By contrast, England's Received Pronunciation uses [æ] regardless of whether the next consonant is nasal or not, and New York City uses [eə] before a nasal at the end of a syllable ([meən]) but not before a nasal between two vowels ([ˈpʰɫænət]).
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 almost identical to [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. The word aunt, however, remains almost universally broad.
Boston accents make a greater variety of distinctions between short and long vowels before medial [ɹ] than many other modern American accents do: Boston accents maintain the distinctions between the vowels in marry [ˈmæɹi], merry [ˈmɛɹi], and Mary [ˈmeəɹi], hurry [ˈhʌɹi] and furry [ˈfɝɹi], mirror [ˈmɪɹə] and nearer [ˈniəɹə], 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 (one of the two phenomena of) Canadian raising, though it is less extreme in New England than in most of Canada. Furthermore, some Boston accents have a tendency to raise the /aʊ/ diphthong in both voiced and voiceless environments and some Boston accents may raise the /aɪ/ diphthong in certain voiced environments.
The nuclei of /oʊ/ and /uː/ are significantly less fronted than in many American accents. /uː/ may be diphthongized to approximately [ɪ̈u].
Non-rhoticity north of the Boston area decreased greatly after World War II. Traditional maps have marked most of the territory east of the Connecticut River as non-rhotic, but this is highly inaccurate for contemporary speakers. The Atlas of North American English, for example, shows none of the six interviewed speakers in New Hampshire (a historically non-rhotic area) as having more than 10% non-rhoticity.
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As a conspicuous, easily identifiable accent, the Boston accent is routinely featured in Boston-setting films such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Good Will Hunting, Ted, Mystic River, The Departed, Blow, The Town, Blown Away, The Fighter, and Gone Baby Gone. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, a character mentions the accent in parody, giving his "best regahds". Television series such as M*A*S*H had David Ogden Stiers' character, Charles Emerson Winchester III using it as evidence of the character's Boston origin, and other series based within a Boston setting, like Boston Public and Cheers have also featured it. Simpsons character Mayor Quimby talks with a Boston accent as reference to the former US Senator Ted Kennedy. 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. Many elements of the Boston accent can be heard on the animated TV series Family Guy, which is set in the fictional city of Quahog, Rhode Island. The Saturday Night Live sketch The Boston Teens with Jimmy Fallon (who is imitating) and Rachel Dratch (who really does use it) also uses it frequently.
Although little known in his native country, Bostonian Loyd Grossman is a household name in the UK, through cooking programs such as Masterchef and ITV's Through the Keyhole. His accent is frequent target for British impressionists.
Much to the irritation of eastern New Englanders, imitators of the accent generally fail to ring true. This is especially noticeable when a specific locale is identified, such as South Boston or Gloucester, each of which has its own distinctive variation.
Some words used in the Boston area are:
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