Mastering the Boston Accent is Wicked Hard

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

A community corner store appropriately called "The Connah Store" in Boston's North End. (Josh Mazgelis/flickr)

From Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting" to Leo DiCaprio in "The Departed," many great actors have tried their hand at the Boston accent. Some succeed at the New England dialect, but many performers fall back on cliched Bostonian phrases, producing a cheap and hackneyed version. 

The stereotypical Bean Town tongue can be fun to mock, but ultimately proves tricky to master. Johnny Depp is in Boston filming a new movie, “Black Mass,” which tells the story of organized crime figure Whitey Bulger. But critics say that he's not nailing the accent.

What makes you sound like a local at Fenway Park? For tips we turn to long time Boston Casting Director, Angela Peri.


Angela Peri

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson


T.J. Raphael

Comments [14]

Leonhard Klaar from Estonia

The origin of accent

When a child begins to speak, he/she sets its articulatory base on that of the people surrounding him/her. Different languages have different normal movements of the parts of articulatory base in the time of talking. For that reason the speech effect in the vocal tract is different. When the tissues there are still young and yield to speech actions, permanent changes take place on the pharynx wall. A mechanical speech apparatus is formed in the vocal tract, which is serviceable until the death of the owner. After a certain critical period all new acquired languages are spoken with that instrument. As the native language has a limited number of sounds and their characteristics are only for that language, all the others are pronounced incorrectly.

A person can have more than one talking instrument in his/her vocal tract
- for instance, when a child is born in a bilingual family.

For comparison: a person has a melody in his/her head and he/she can make it audible with the help of musical instruments, whereas each of them has its own “accent”. But the melody can be right with all instruments.

Leonhard Klaar

Why phoneticians do not want to admit that they have no idea about the origin of accent?

Sep. 30 2014 09:33 PM

I love my Boston accent. It's really thick but what's surprised me was how much it has flattened out since my move overseas without my even trying to do it. I've discovered that being surrounded by people for whom English is their 2nd (or 3rd) language, you often need to slow down your speech and really an-nun-ci-ate your words. (Ironically, I live in Beijing where the local accent is the exact *opposite* of the Boston accent- they add "R" sounds to words. You should really do a follow-up piece on that!) When i went back to the US last month for my first visit back in 4 years, I was shocked as the change in my speech. It was like a switch flipped in my head and my super thick Boston accent was back, only this time I could really hear it. It was very surreal.

Jun. 06 2014 12:44 AM
Donna Perrotta

Don't you mean "wicked haad?"

Jun. 05 2014 05:30 PM
Brendan from Brooklyn by way of Boston

The only non-Bostonian actor to nail it was the late great Robert Mitchum in the "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," largely because he didn't kill it--he was subtle with it, which other non-natives seem incapable of doing. Mitchum is the only one who doesn't sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. An inauthentic accent drives a native insane!

Jun. 04 2014 10:41 PM
MJ Haupt from Philadelphia

I think the hardest accent to get right is the Philly accent. The only actor who has come close is the guy who played Bill G. in Band of Brothers and even that was a little off. Mark Wahlberg did a "Boston lite/ Brooklyn" accent in lieu of a Philly accent when he played Vince Papale.

Jun. 04 2014 07:46 PM

OK, if you going to bring up regional southern accents, you'll have to accept that the Boston accent being copied is a Southie accent. Different from the Boston Brahmin, or Dorchester, etc. or the near suburbs like Revere, or Medford. Like any accent, the authenticity is lost if you keep dropping elements of it along the way. The excerpts on the show started okay, but faded to half-wrong at arbitrary points, so it sounds like people faking it, which is more distracting than using a consistent, non-regional voice.

Jun. 04 2014 06:44 PM

Boston accent going world wide- link to humorous video on teaching Boston English in China.

Jun. 04 2014 06:32 PM
Jhana from Boston

Dropping the R's doesn't cut it. You have to know which r's to drop, which to add, and all of the other subtleties. If you listen to Angela you'll hear her say "ta" instead of "to", like "ya hafta", but the "ya" isn't YAAAAAH, it's like the end of the letter W with an A added. And you'll hear her broaden her vowels, but not with a "ah" sound, it's more rounded than that. There's slurring of words together sometimes, but not others."listeneme" is an example. It's VERY hard to mimic. The only actors I've ever seen nail it grew up here, and maybe don't have the accent but can regress to it easily (Joey Macyntire in The Heat was amazing-nailed it). People that think Nicholson or Depp did a good job don't live here. They sounded ridiculous to me. Even if you are like me and say all of your R's, I still have lots of other speech patterns that are Bostonian, many of the ones I mentioned above. That's why it is so hard to get-it's so many small things that make it distinct.

Jun. 04 2014 03:09 PM
AK from New England from Charlotte, NC

I grew up in Down East Maine and both my parents grew up in Massachusetts just outside Boston. I agree 100% with Angela Peri... the Boston accent is the hardest to master and I haven't heard a non-native be able to pull it off yet in a movie. Also Down East accents are butchered...ever seen a Steven King Movie? I've found myself turning off movies before because of the bad Boston accent it just isn't natural for anyone that isn't from the region.

Jun. 04 2014 02:43 PM

I agree Jonathan Z! Dear John H, The southern accent has been abused so long...everyone thinks they can do it. Coming from the deep, as in deep Mississippi, south, I am constantly cringing when I hear actors trying to fake it (because they think it's so easy to do)or even worse, who have had overly generalized dialect training (because they know it's not that easy to do). No offense to Kyra Sedgwick in the Closer, but oh lordie that's chalk board cringing. If you're character is going to have an over-the-top southern accent, you really need to get it right. I love your accent BOSTON ! Make the actors get it right or everyone will think it's easy, that anyone can do it and pretty soon it starts to lose it's authenticity.

Jun. 04 2014 02:16 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Angela Peri can whip Johnny Depp into shape to play the mob gangster Whitey Bulger, or she can play him, herself. She sounds tough.

Jun. 04 2014 01:07 PM
Jonathan Ziegler from Knoxville, TN

Not diminishing the difficulty of learning a Boston accent, I disagree that the southern accent is the easiest to learn, because there isn't just one "southern" accent. People from southern Alabama, Arkansas, East Tennessee, Coastal North Carolina, Georgia, etc all have different accents, although they do generally share a set of characteristics that are considered "southern". The problem is that when you just add up all those characteristics and call it a southern accent like many actors and dialect coaches do, what you get is some weird hybrid accent that a native speaker would find slightly off and, well, fake.

Jun. 04 2014 11:44 AM
Rod from Boston

Funny thing about our discomfort with religion and democracy. When Islamic parties come to power via the ballot we object to the point of being willing to subvert the democratic process - see Algeria (1991) Turkey (1994 and 200?) and Gaza (2006) but at the same time we have absolutely no comment when the extremist religious parties assume positions of power within the Israeli state. How do you square that circle?!

Jun. 04 2014 11:28 AM

Just go and live in Boston foah a week. You'll be dropping those r's befoah you know it. How does a Bostonian pronounce 'dropping oah red?'

Jun. 04 2014 09:54 AM

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