The Nation's Pulse

In the Matter of the Boston “R”

What it's like to be stuck between a rock and a hahd place.

By 9.2.05

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In the crowded kitchen at a party in the Boston area, four people stood talking and laughing about the Rhode Island accent.

"Like when I met my husband, he was always calling me 'Bawbra,'" said one woman from Massachusetts. "It's 'BAH-bra.'"

"How did you all spot each other as Rhode Islanders?" I asked one of the men later.

"It's the way we say 'wooda.'"

I almost had to resort to asking him to spell the word. That's "water" to most of us.

MENTION BOSTON IN NON-EASTERN environs and you're liable to get back an attempt at a joke, something like, "Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd." Curt Schilling, brought to the Red Sox from the Diamondbacks to pitch in 2004, made a promo spot for TV. In it, he holds a small tape player and wears earphones. You hear him practicing, language-lab style. "I'm gonna show up at the ballpahk and play hahd. I'm gonna play wicked hahd."

The Boston accent is notorious, probably because of JFK, and of that accent, no part carries more freight than the Boston (or Massachusetts) "r." It is widely misunderstood, and mis-imitated. No simple "ah," it bears within it a real, pronounced "r" that gives it its peculiar bite, so suited to scorn and put-down.

A young woman, to a cigar smoker (back in those days) perched on the rear of his seat at Fenway Park: "Hey, Mistuh Cigah! Sit yer ass down!"

Imagine a one-inch rock stuck in the mouth between the hard palate and the heart of the tongue -- the two parts of the mouth that must come almost together to sound the letter "r" fully. Then imagine you are trying to make the "r" sound, but can't quite make it because of that jagged rock. Imagine you try so hard it hurts.

Bay Staters can pronounce "r," and, when they do, do so with emphasis.

Parade watcher to parade watcher: "Who's that?"

"Kerry" (which comes out Kerr-rry).

"Oh."

And, like other Easterners, they sometimes put in an "r" where there is none, JFK's oft-mocked "Cuber," for example. Kennedy would not say "Cuber" where the name of the island dictatorship stood alone, however -- only when required to differentiate it from a following vowel. That isn't consistent in the accent. A local radio host, sponsored by a law firm with the website elderlaw.com, pronounces it, "Eldalore dot com."

Which brings up a key point. The final "r" in Mass-speak, again as with many Eastern accents, does not contain that burr-like rock-stuck implied hard "r" in the middle. It's simply "ah," somewhat shorter than the accented "r" syllable. Once again, it can be emphasized for scorn. A radio caller, of Mitt Romney: "He's an outsidah."

OUR FIVE YEAR OLD SON WANTED to show me a card trick his babysitter had taught him.

"Pick a cahd," Joe said. "Any cahd."

Our eleven year old has for years been calling his favorite school subject "draw-ring."

The Boston "r" has invaded our unaccented home. What are we to do?

In the local argot, "I'd'n oh."

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.