Don't Hate On My Accent

An accent tells you deceptively little about a person. If you have a keen ear, you can discern roughly where in the world someone comes from. Other than that, though, anything else we infer comes from our own cultural biases.

If you hear someone speaking with a French accent, you might assume that he behaves with an air of sophistication. That he has an informed global perspective and a familiarity with renaissance poetry and existential philosophy. That may be the case. But, on the other hand, he may be the kind of guy who crushes Genesee Cream Ale cans on his forehead and has a Dave Matthews Band lyric tattooed around his bicep.

The same accent carries different significance depending on where it’s heard. In America, a British accent implies authority and intelligence, while in England, the specific locality of the accent can mean anything from professorial intellect to low-class street-pukery. In the American south, a twang or a drawl can convey camaraderie or a shared interest in heritage and family. Outside of the south, though, that accent has different connotations. People sometimes perceive it as rural or backward thinking, which is unfair. But it’s not any more biased than feeling an affinity for someone based on sounding alike.

The Midwest allegedly has as little of an accent as possible while speaking American English. But to people outside that region, the dialect sounds singularly folksy. A voice’s implications exist primarily in the ear of the beholder.

All that said, my relationship with the Boston accent is longstanding and problematic. I grew up in suburban Massachusetts. Not, like, J. Crew suburbia. Just a town of mostly white people who didn’t live inside of a major city. The point is, even though we didn’t suffer daily on account of Boston’s arcane traffic patterns or crime, the regional accent survived on the lips of most of my classmates and neighbors.

Of course, I also spoke the local patoi-ah. In high school I struggled with parallel pahking. I cheered for the Sawx. Fortunately, my accent stopped just short of taking on the extra “r’s” where they don’t belong. Idear. Amander. Et ceterar. When I left for college, only eight miles from the city but rife with transplants from other regions, I received persistent ridicule for my dialect.

“How good was that pizza, Josh? Was it… wicked good?”

I had to do something about it. Instead of flaunting my linguistic uniqueness, I retreated. With careful daily concentration, I restored the letter “r” to the end of my words. I resisted calling friends “guy” as a term of brotherhood. For the most part, I mainstreamed my speech.

I will, on occasion, still refer to things as “wicked awesome.” Usually that only comes out in the middle of a sporting event or a heated debate over an unimportant subject (Roadhouse, for example). I also pronounce “Florida” as “Flahrida,” which is a thing I didn’t notice at all until my native Floridian girlfriend pointed it out repeatedly over a period of months.

Sometimes I regret the effort I expended into making myself sound like everyone else. Or more accurately, I guess, like anyone else. People who meet me for the first time often ask whether I am from Wisconsin or Canada. It happens a lot, and it always feels like a mild betrayal of my New England heritage.

To be fair, though, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of choices. Boston accents in the mainstream media receive even worse treatment than the much-maligned southern drawl. At least southerners are portrayed in a variety of roles. The old-time gentleman. The hick. The aggressive racist. The surprising intellectual. The down-to-earth cousin. The Boston accent relegates you to one of two roles: Pugnacious townie or brilliant janitor.

It’s true. Either you’re getting into fistfights over athletic events, or you’re some sort of unschooled prodigy. Other New England natives don’t fare so well either in popular culture either. Snobby Connecticut in-laws. Ron Paul types from New Hampshire. Organized criminals (or sloppy animated dads) from Rhode Island. Maine and Vermont fare a little better with their organic toothpaste and ice cream renown, respectively.

In reality, though, few accents paint a glowing picture of the speaker. The California lilt comes off as flakey. A Canadian “eh” seems rustic. Even the cultural heft of a warm, lippy French accent has overtones of snoot.

So what’re we to do? In addition to the prejudices people face over skin color, race, sex, clothing, and more, we come up against the oft-overlooked regional accent bias. Do we speak in a way that obscures our point of origin, or do we let our natural diction run wild?

It seems like the best thing to do is let go. Unless you are applying for a job as a national news anchor, there’s no problem with a little local flair. Just go for it, and trust that whoever you’re talking to is conscientious enough to listen past your voice to the content of your words.

Or, as they say where I’m from: “Wicked conscientious, guy.” TC mark

image – James

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    i read that mcsweeney’s article on greek tragedies at a boston bar and i thought it was HILARIOUS. 

    and accents are always a great thing to have when there’s alcohol around 

  • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

    I have to hide my Fall River accent, Josh.  If you’re from Massachusetts…you know how trashy being associated with Fall River makes me.  Top stories of the year included a dentist using paperclips in root canals, a body not being discovered in a pool until days later, and being rated in the top 100 worst cities in which to live in the United States.  Yep…it’s my city.

    • R.L.

      as someone from Taunton, I’m all too familiar with the accent and the stigma

  • Anonymous

    Interesting write-up.  I’m Ohio born but have lived in the South, South Carolina, since I was a year old.  Not only that, I seriously think my parents, ,  have lived everywhere on the east coast between the two of them.  Lol.  I’ve had people ask me whether these two things influenced the way I talk, and I’ve had others say I don’t sound like I’m from the South.  On the other hand, I’ve said things which definitely give away how long I’ve lived in the South.  How people talk is fascinating.  And if your blind, like me, you use peoples’ voices to distinguish them.

  • http://twitter.com/RonanConway Christopher Conway

    my family / region all speaks with new york accents, but two of my uncles, one born in hell’s kitchen and one in flatlands in the 1940s always fascinated me as a child with how heavy and almost incomprehensible their accents were. I never thought I had an accent until college when I got made fun of for how I pronounced “sauce,” “dog,” “coffee,” “water.” had a similar kind of newfound pride in my home after that experience.

    though fair enough I absolutely fucking hate midwestern / ohio / minnesota accents. that’s the only american one I can’t stand, it grating as fuck and makes me want to strangle the speaker.

  • Robin Alfiri

    You should watch “Do You Speak American” if you have not already done so.
    It really relates to this! 

    • Anonymous

      I’ve seen that documentary.  It’s pretty fascinating.

  • Brownladesh

    Nothing gave me more peace this summer living in Bangladesh than meeting someone else with a Boston accent. Instantly we broke into our own language. I’m wicked hungry”, “So aren’t i!” “Lets gowda Demoulas, put some Tab and hamburg in the carriage, and stop by the packie because beyah don’ come outta tha bubblah.”

  • Pnridd

    I know how that feels. I moved to North Carolina from Colorado about 15 years ago and I still constantly observe the difference in accents and different sayings. I however try my best not to fit into the southern drawl.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jess.hurst1 Jess Hurst

    Born in Texas, raised in Kentucky, living in West Virginia. I relate, guy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=41508118 Caity Sherlock

    i’m from rhode island and living in Seekonk, MA. I went to school in NY and got berated about my accent and calling the water fountain a “bubbler” was fun for no one. yay new england! we are wicked awesome!

    • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

       Seekonk, huh?  Maybe I’ll run into you at Showcase Cinemas….just hope you don’t. 

  • Dre

    Grew up in Lowell, MA and lost my wicked strong accent when I went to college in Cambridge. It’s amazing how strong of a force “persistant ridicule” can be.

    • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

       Who you callin’ an MTV girl, you old bitch. 

      • Douchegirl

        Marry me?

  • Saxophone

    Nice blawg Chief!!! 

  • R.A.

    It isn’t Midwestern that is considered “neutral” English–it’s the Pacific Northwest (Washington, precisely).

  • samantha

    I grew up in the Philadelphia area and now I go to school in the Northwest. Everyone here makes fun of me for saying “fahrest”, “flahrida”, “ahrange”, etc. Don’t even know if that’s a Philadelphia thing, but yeah….

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