The Boston Brahmins were the rich, exclusive group of aristocratic New Englanders who prided themselves on arts and culture, and one way of doing this was to speak with a British accent, exemplified by the infamous phrase “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.”
However, research from University of Michigan’s Richard Bailey suggests that accent, in which the “R” is dropped from certain words, may have actually originated here in Boston. In a Radio Boston interview, WBUR examines Bailey’s book, “Speaking American: A History of English in the United States,” and the origin of the Boston accent with Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for the Boston Globe.
The non-rhotic pronunciation that is associated with Boston today actually dates back 400 years, when settlers first came to the area from Europe. In his book, Bailey writes, “While the omission or vocalization of R is a prestige feature in modern British English, it was very much a rustic feature in 17th century England. In the evolution of R-less pronunciation, Boston led the English-speaking world.”
However, Zimmer explains on air that, “Bostonians didn’t just suddenly start dropping their R’s overnight.” As more settlers came to the Boston-area from the regions of Southeastern England, where non-rhotic pronunciations were common, R-less words became more evident here, especially in 17th century documents.
Luckily for researchers like Bailey, “New England at this time was perhaps the most literate place in the English-speaking world,” explains Zimmer,“so we have lots and lots of records of different types of language use.” During the 17th century, written English was not yet standardized, so these documents revealed the words spelled without their R’s, such as “Geoge” instead of “George” and “fouth” versus “fourth.”
“This was not something that was considered prestigious in England until later,” says Zimmer. “Boston led the way in treating this as a prestigious pronunciation.”
Additionally, certain forms of words used commonly today have roots in Boston. Zimmer explains there was a religious-linguistic battle between the Puritans and the Quakers in Massachusetts in the late 17th century. In the view of Puritans, Quakers didn’t speak “properly,” because they used the less formal “thee, thou and thy,” instead of the more formal, “you,” which we obviously prefer to use today.
Zimmer points to the Dictionary of American Regional English, which was recently completed after 50 years of research, for further examples of how New Englanders and Bostonians differ in speech from other areas of the country, just as “pocketbook” rather than “purse” or “rubbish” instead of “trash.”
My personal favorite as a native Midwesterner? The age-old argument of “pop” versus “soda.” Agree to disagree, my friends.
To listen to the full WBUR interview, click here.