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The entertainment potential of regional varieties of American English has apparently hit the late-night TV zeitgeist. Here's a brilliant trailer, for the imaginary movie Boston Accent (posted on YouTube 1/21/2016):

And a new kind of competition, the Accent-Off (also posted on 1/21/2016):

The formation accent-off is on the pattern of play-off, run-off (in elections or tournaments, not rainstorms), cook-off, bake-off, grill-off, … I can't think of any common X-off examples where X is a noun, though there are other occasional semi-serious coinages like "guac-off" and "chili-off" — but the meaning is plain.


  1. John Palkovic said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 8:16 am

    Someone needs to check the location of Duluth on the map. It's situated at the western end of lake Superior along with its sister city Superior, WI.

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 11:25 am

    Glad someone finally picked up on English actors' accents. I'm constantly surprised by the free pass – for both bad accents and bad acting – that my fellow-countrymen seem to get in America.

    R-less accents are particularly tricky for English (and Welsh) actors, since it means unlearning the AmE reflexes that have become second nature. It would be interesting to know if any of them are good enough to add 'intrusive' /r/ back in for R-less US accents (but eradicate it from R-full ones..

  3. Lazar said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: It varies by actor, of course – but yeah, I think there's a stereotype that British actors are better with American accents than vice versa, when in truth they do about equally well (or poorly). Among good actors, I'd cite Ewan McGregor and Jude Law as ones who really can't manage it convincingly. Albert Finney I'd place just a shade higher, if only because he usually seems to aim more for an elite Northeastern accent than for General American.

    I find that intrusive r is perhaps the most common pitfall for British actors, often marring an otherwise passable General American. For example, when I saw the trailer for the movie Unbroken, I immediately guessed that the lead actor was a Brit when he said, "What they want me to say about Ameriker, it's not true." But in fact they didn't use that line in the film itself, and if I had seen it without having seen the trailer, he might have fooled me.

    Now Hugh Laurie's accent was very good in House and he really did allow me to forget that he had been George in Blackadder, although even he wasn't perfect: he pronounced "happiness" with a telltale lax vowel in the middle syllable, and his use of [ɑ] rather than [ʌ] in words like "was" was a little out of place too. Sometimes it's a curse to have a good ear for this stuff.

    Regarding Boston – out-of-state actors' attempts do range from passable to terrible. Mary-merry-marry and similar distinctions are often quite hard for them to pick up, and they only inconsistently seem to manage the rounded short o's. (You'll often see the word "Boston" rendered in eye dialect as "Bashtin", an indication of the bafflingly wrong ideas that many people have about the accent.) Another annoying mistake – which I suspect that those perfidious dialect coaches may even encourage – is to pronounce the NURSE vowel in British fashion as [əː]. A few speakers born in the early 20th century use something like [ʏː], but aside from that almost everyone in Massachusetts pronounces that vowel rhotically, just as in New York City. An accent as far afield as Ricky Gervais's will show you that that phoneme is generally the last to retain rhoticity, and the first to regain it.

  4. Lazar said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

    Sorry, that bad eye dialect spelling should be "Bahstin".

  5. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    The makers of Boston Accent seem to have a rather broad conception of 'accent', if the use of 'bro and 'wicked' is seen as an example of it.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    @ Lazar –

    Very interesting. I'd never noticed that NURSE was rhotic in otherwise r-less AmE.

    Agreed that even good actors often still have intrusive /r/, and even 'hyper-intrusive' /r/ – there was a good post about it on here a while back: Mozareller Sticks. My point was that a really skilled accent-mimic might be able to not only eliminate it, but to re-introduce it into non-rhotic AmE accents…

    I hardly ever notice bad English accents from American actors – though they tend to be better at old-RP than the modern prestige accent (with notable exceptions like Renée Zellweger's brilliant accent in Bridget Jones). Whereas the Australians can do a whole range. Mike Myers's Scottish accent in Shrek is oddly terrible, since I believe his dad was Scottish and he seems to be able to do it elsewhere. Unless he's producing a regional variation that I'm not familiar with.

    Laurie's accent – I agree it is excellent. Law – I don't agree he's good!

    Gervais – yes he's from Bristol, which is often only partially r-full. Plus he's spent a lot of his life in London.

  7. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

    What did Americans think of Idris Elba's accent in The Wire? To me it was flawless – in contrast to Dominic West's, which was inconsistent. But my only reference point for Baltimore African-American street speech was… The Wire, so I couldn't be sure.

    In fairness to West, at one point in the show he did do an excellent few lines as MacNulty doing a bad impression of an Englishman, which is pretty impressive.

  8. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 3:38 pm

    As an outsider who has lived near Boston, the most jarring moment for me in the Seth Myers clip was his misuse of the word "wicked". In much of the English-speaking world, and as used in this video, it's an adjective ("That's wicked") but in Boston I've always heard it used as an intensifier ("It's wicked cold out today").

    Also, I'm pretty sure my grandparents all say/said "nurse" non-rhotically. Have I just been mishearing them all these years?

  9. James Flynn said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

    I'm wondering since we know that the Boston accent does not have a heavy r/ pronunciation. Was Boston originally called Barston but the city planners heard the r-lessness and decided to cut their losses and change the name?

  10. Lazar said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Agreed on both counts. I thought Idris Elba was excellent; with West, I remember one scene in particular in which he was yelling and seemed to forget the American accent altogether. In fact, I think that may be one of the hardest things to do: in the movie Lars and the Real Girl, Emily Mortimer also sounded most British in the scene where she was yelling. And from my recollection of the Horatio Hornblower miniseries, Ioan Gruffudd seemed to sound a little more Welsh when he was yelling commands.

    @Anschel Schaffer-Cohen: I wouldn't say that. Non-rhotic realizations of NURSE used to be a lot more common in the Northeastern US, but in my experience they're moribund among those born after World War 2.

  11. Lazar said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 4:07 pm

    @James Flynn: No, not at all – it's named after the town of Boston in Lincolnshire. As I indicated above, it's not pronounced "Bahston" [ˈbaːstən], but rather "Bawston" [ˈbɒːstən]. The first pronunciation shows up frequently in (bad) fake Boston accents, but if you used it there you'd be laughed out of town.

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 4:30 pm

    I believe something like that did happen with 'Bristol' though: it was originally 'Bristow', but people assumed the last segment was a vocalised dark /l/. Since that pronunciation was associated with lower-class speech (it's now standard even in the prestige English accent), so it was hypercorrected to 'Bristol'.

    What about the 'Boston Brahmin' accent? Is that still heard?

  13. Lazar said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    Yeah, apparently Bristol was "Brycgstow" in Old English.

    What about the 'Boston Brahmin' accent? Is that still heard?

    Like the "Mid-Atlantic" accent of which it was a localized form, it's basically extinct now, except for perhaps a few very old rich people. You can hear shades of it in the speech of someone like John Kerry, but having grown up in Massachusetts I can't recall ever hearing a full-blown Boston Brahmin accent in real life. For the most part, the sociolectal spectrum here is between General American and Eastern New England.

  14. AntC said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 8:21 pm

    @Anschel S-C: wicked I hear equally often as adjective or intensifier [Br E.]

    Are you saying in Boston it's used purely as an intensifier?

  15. Rebecca said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 10:17 pm

    To my ears, Matthew Rhys does a flawless American accent in the Americans. Interesting because he plays a Russian pretending to be an American.

  16. Stephen said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 7:50 pm


    …and they only inconsistently seem to manage the rounded short o's.

    IME, a lot of Boston natives only inconsistently manage the rounded short o's. Listen to Denis Leary, for instance. He sounds like he might even have a cotcaught distinction to me. His accent does sound northeastern to me, but I don't know if I'd pinpoint it to the Boston area.

    …but aside from that almost everyone in Massachusetts pronounces that vowel rhotically, just as in New York City.

    Yeah, but the rhotic vowel used by New Yorkers and Bostonians in work often sounds different to me than the one used by people in other parts of North America. Maybe I'm cursed with a good ear for "this stuff" too. Although I'm not cursed with a large enough phonetic vocabulary to be able to describe all the differences I hear.

    …Emily Mortimer also sounded most British in the scene where she was yelling.

    I noticed the same thing with Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight.

  17. Gene Callahan said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 3:10 am

    @Pflaumbaum: I had no idea Idris Elba wasn't American on The Wire.
    Same for Colin Farrell in Phone Booth. Two of the best British Isles American accents.
    Liam Neeson, on the other hand, lapses into Irish about once per sentence!

  18. Craig said,

    January 26, 2016 @ 7:51 am

    It would be good to note that the first video has scenes of violence starting around 4:15. Not pleasant at all.

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