Gender, dialect, and taboo vocabulary in court

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In case (like me) you haven't been following the murder trial of Karen Read, this article provides the background: Kim Stelloh, "Karen Read is accused of killing her Boston police officer boyfriend. Here's what we know about the murder trial", NBC News 6/7/2024. The current media fever focuses on the testimony of (Massachusetts State Police investigator) Michael Proctor, forced on the witness stand to read some text messages that hit a trifecta of gender, regional, and vocabulary biases:

I didn't know what a "Fall River accent" is, weird or not — but Google offers some fragments of information (larded with varying amounts of bias…), e.g.:

"How to speak Fall River"
"Do Bristol County accents sound more like Boston or NYC to you?"
"Massachusetts Fall River Accent"
"DION: We speak Fall River, not English, 07-28-08"

A few past posts on English-language accent prejudice:

"Lazy mouths vs. lazy minds", 11/26/2003
"The beauty of Brummie", 7/28/2004
"Those sleepy, slurry southerners", 11/27/2006
"Whodunit sociolinguistics", 7/11/2016
"What makes an accent good or bad?", 11/17/2020
"Accent, power, and persuasion", 3/6/2022




  1. Laura Morland said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 6:50 am

    I heartily suggest LL readers at least skim the delightful article you cited (last):

    Key paragraph:

    "What we've got in Fall River is English overlain and splattered with influences from the Irish, the French Canadians and the Portuguese, tweaked with a bit of nasal New England Yankee and newly fertilized with words from the Spanish, with terms from rap and hip-hop.

    "The city's whole history comes through in every sentence."

  2. Seonachan said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 9:57 am

    I'm not personally familiar with Fall River or its accent, but the links indicate it's similar to the Rhode Island accent, which makes sense geographically. The main difference between the RI and Boston accents is the former's lack of a cot-caught merger – which is why Rhode Islanders (and, apparently, Bristol County folks) – sound New York-ish to people further north.

  3. Cervantes said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 9:00 am

    Check out the Family Guy animated sitcom (if you can stand it) for a sample.

  4. Lazar said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 11:47 am

    Seconding the above, Fall River accents cluster with Providence (SENE) rather than Boston-Worcester (NENE). I could be wrong, but my experience is that the closely kindred city of New Bedford lies just on the other side of the dialect boundary, sounding more Bostonish.

    @Cervantes: IME the accents on Family Guy can be a little blurred, with Peter using rounded short o's that would be out of place in Rhode Island. For real exemplars of a SENE accent I'd suggest the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and the late Red Sox announcer Jerry Remy (both from Fall River).

  5. Cervantes said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 12:26 pm

    I think Lois is the better exemplar, if (intentionally) a bit exaggerated. Neither Seth MacFarlane nor Alex Borstein, who voice Peter and Lois respectively, are actually from Rhode Island so they're producing imitations.

    Since Remy was a professional broadcaster I'd say his accent was a bit sanded down.

  6. Seonachan said,

    June 14, 2024 @ 1:53 am

    Speaking as someone who comes from the other side of Boston (Merrimack Valley), I find Remy an interesting case, because I never thought of his accent as being anything other than a normal Eastern New England one. Emeril sounds different, as do most Rhode Islanders I've met – some of whom I've mistaken for New Yorkers. (I've never watched Family Guy so can't comment on that.)

    Listening to clips of Remy now, it's pretty easy to pick out the lack of a cot-caught merger, but it doesn't seem as pronounced as with the others. And his ah/ahr-fronting sounds pretty close to NENE, at least to my ear. But I could be influenced by a long-standing mental association I have with his speech.

    To give an example, here is his famous "Here Comes the Pizza(r)" episode:

    Just from a quick run-through (I'm sure I missed some) I hear the caught vowel in "thought" (0:48 and 2:13), "ball" (1:56 and 3:06), "off" (2:28), and "awful" (3:03). The cot vowel can be heard with "Don" (1:32), "hot" (2:20), "apologized" (2:25), and "tolerated" (3:05). Otherwise there's plenty of non-rhoticity, with accompanying intrusive r's, and a nice trap-bath split that shows up in "asked" at 1:56.

  7. mg said,

    June 14, 2024 @ 10:49 pm

    @Seonachan – oh how I miss Jerry Remy (and Don Orsillo, too)! I think his handlers must have worked with him to sand down that Fall River accent, plus he also probably lost some of it from all his years playing with teammates with accents from all over the country and world.

    One little bit of the accent that struck me was how he said "pizzer" (with a light r) – very typical Boston-area.

  8. Jax said,

    July 4, 2024 @ 6:58 am

    No, no, no. I’m from Fall River. The accent is very different from both RI and Boston and New Beford. In the “Story of English,” which PBS made a few evades ago, they carefully point out that in the UK and in New England the accent changes ever 15 miles. All of these cities— Providence, Fall River, New Bedford, are 15 miles (almost exactly) from one another and we’re rather isolated from one another until the highway system was out in. Taunton is 15 miles north of Fall River. I used to work there and found their accent very odd. Also some words they used I didn’t even understand— “christah” as in Jesus Christ, for example. “I had a christah of a day” meaning a bad day. Or “he’s a christah” meaning a pain in the ass.

    But the Fall Rover accent is extremely strong. I’m asked often where I’m from. Il’ll tell them but then they say: no originally. They can’t quite put their finger on it Ireland? England? But stranger. Besides Portuguese, French/Canadien and Irish, Fall River was very influenced by the British millworkers who came from Manchester and Liverpool. There are dozens of fish and chips restaurants and every other restaurant serves it including all the Portuguese ones. Poutine is found at some places – there is even a poutine food truck —and EVERY restaurant has white or malt vinegar on the table alongside the usually ketchup and salt and pepper. Your fries (chips) are eaten with vinegar among other dishes.

    Many of our words sound similar to the Manchester accent. We say “postman” and post for mail (though a lot of this is fading with younger generations).
    We make no difference in the pronunciation of words like: hot and heart; cot and cart, dot and dart.
    Words like “got” and “lot” and “work” are pronounced the British way — more like gut and lut I guess.
    We don’t say basement but rather cellar and “the” isn’t used with cellar such as: “where’s Uncle Tom?” “Oh he’s down cellar.”
    We also use double contractions often as in “Don’t let’s make this difficult.”
    In Providence they call the eastern part of Providence the East Side. In Fall River we call the eastern part of Fall River the East End..
    I do notice, however, the strong accent is beginning to fade. My 20-something relatives don’t sound like me (60) or my older sisters (sistahs).

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