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.”