I have never lived more than twenty miles away from Boston. I was born and raised there. I went to high school in the Boston neighborhood known as Dawchestuh — the same school where Whitey Bulger’s brother, Billy Bulger, also went. (In Boston, Dorchester Avenue is invariably referred to in speech as “Dot Ave.”) When I went off to college, I manage to travel all the way to Cambridge, one city to the north, where I once actually did pahk my cah in Hahvid Yahd. (That’s not really a thing they let you do.)
When people become aware of this sad fact about me, their first response is usually: “But you don’t have a Boston accent!” And that’s true. But, like any Bostonian, I notice when actors don’t get the accent right. Which is more often than not. But it’s never been clear to me that this is because the accent is, well, hahd, or because I’m just so attuned to it. Do people from Louisiana grouse about the accents in True Detective? What do folks from Baltimore think when they watch The Wire?
Here’s an interview with a Boston-area casting director (about fifteen minutes into the episode), who says the Boston accent is one of the hardest ones to get right. But I think she underestimates the difficulty in a few ways:
- She says most actors, like Jack Nicholson in The Departed, are inconsistent about dropping their R’s. But I think sometimes actors are too consistent. The casting director herself pronounced lots of R’s, but she was consistent in saying “hahd” and “heah”, which is what you want.
- She neglects to mention another aspect of the Boston accent — putting in R’s where they don’t belong. This is the biggest temptation I have: for example, my first instinct is to say “I sawr it” instead of “I saw it.” (I can remember way back when I was learning to read, being puzzled when I saw that sentence in print for the first time — what happened to the R that I clearly heard everyone say?) A somewhat lesser temptation is to say “dater” instead of “data”.
- Finally, there’s more than one Boston accent. In movies you typically hear the straight-on streets-of-Southie accent. The actress who plays the wife on Ray Donovan does a good version of this (she’s from Belfast). The Kennedys, of course, have their own weird version of the accent. And there’s a different patrician version that you don’t hear much anymore. But most people I know just have the merest trace of an accent — just enough to make it clear where they’re from.
Although most of my novels are set in or around Boston or have Boston characters, I’ve never been tempted to try to do a Boston accent in print. Just too distracting for the reader. You just have to imagine the accent is there.