American Dialect: New England

This article is the first in an occasional series that will examine different regional accents across the United States (and if I become ambitious, the English-speaking world).

The New England Yankee dialect is familiar to most Americans. Its standard test is how one says “Park the car in Harvard Yard.” If you say “ Pahk the car in Hahvahd Yahd,” you are from New England, or more specifically from New England east of the Connecticut River.

Like the American Southern and New York City dialects, people in New England drop the R after a vowel sound (in linguistic jargon it is a non-rhotic dialect). Hence park becomes pahk and Harvard Yard becomes Hahvahd Yahd. And many is the New England child who grew up thinking that mirror attached to the car’s windshield was the review mirror, to review what you just passed, not the rear view mirror. But there is a twist. In New England (and in New York City), one does not drop the R at the end of a word if the next word begins with a vowel. Hence, the R is pronounced in car in the above phrase because the next word begins with I. If one were simply giving the command park the car, it would be pronounced pahk the cah because there is no vowel sound following. Southerners drop the R regardless of what comes next.

Another feature of the New England dialect that is expressed in the pahk the car phrase is the Broad A. In most of the United States, the words father and bother rhyme. In New England, they don’t. The difference is the Broad A sound in the New England father. The Broad A is difficult to describe to someone who doesn’t have the sound in their phonological repertoire (i.e., most Americans). But it is sort of a combination of the O in bother and the A in hat.

The third distinct pronunciation difference in New England speech is the Short O. Most words that take a long O vowel instead take a short one in traditional New England speech. So road becomes rud and home becomes hum. The New England Short O, however, is disappearing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find people that actually use it.

Not all New Englanders speak alike, however. We’ve already mentioned the magic dividing line of the Connecticut River. That river separates Vermont from New Hampshire and bisects Connecticut and Massachusetts. The New England accent is primarily found east of that line, in Eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, Eastern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Coastal Maine. West of the river, in Vermont, Western Massachusetts, and Western Connecticut, the New England Accent gives way to the standard Mid-Atlantic and New York City accents. And in Northern Maine you find Quebecois and Canadian English influences. French words creep into speech and the Canadian OU, where about is pronounced aboot, can be found, eh.

Boston, the chief city in New England, has some further variation of its own. Throughout the city, both geographically and socially, you will find that most speak with the standard New England accent. But there are two social groups that have their own distinctive speech.

The first are the Brahmins, the old money, social elites. Their pronunciation is almost British. Like the British, the short A is pronounced as ah, so glass has the same vowel sound as father. The Broad A tends to become a clipped A in Brahmin speak, thus a Brahmin’s beloved alma mater is pronounced Hahvud and marble isn’t mah-ble, it’s mabble. Note the Brahmins still drop the R like the rest of their fellow New Englanders.

The second Boston variation is that of the working class of the center city. It’s very similar to the standard New England accent, but there are a few differences. The short A in many words, like washed, becomes an O, and T is often changed to D. Potatoes, for example, becomes padadahs.

And don’t get me started on the Kennedys. Nobody else talks like that.

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