When I was young my mom would tell me to come in before it got dahk, her voice carelessly skipping the r to reach an equally important, elongated a. The way she talked, even if she was simply ushering me in from outside, was a constant reminder of the home she left back East. In my Illinois suburb this was not overlooked by random passersby. Strangers would occasionally stop us on the sidewalk, trading impassioned guesses as to where she was from. “New York!” They’d exclaim, disappointment creeping across their face as I shook my head. “London!” They’d occasionally shout next as I laughed. “Boston,” I’d clarify with pride. She spoke the same way as everyone in my life that lived in Massachusetts. All of the adults that I admired let me browse their old records and lobster traps down cella and had the same peculiar vowel formation. I thought it was the most endearing thing in the world.
It never crossed my mind that there were people from Massachusetts that didn’t speak like my mom until I ended up at an elite university on an entirely different continent.
On one of my first nights away I was invited out to a pub with some fellow Americans. Sitting there, cider in hand, I heard a girl assert the unexpected:
“The Boston accent doesn’t actually exist,” my new classmate mused, a cardigan draped carelessly around her shoulders. “I’ve never heard anyone talk like that.”
The girl spoke as if the very sound of the most familiar accent I know was blasphemous, and it was easy to pretend to think the same way when I spoke like the rest of the crowd. My midwestern upbringing afforded me a degree of dialectical neutrality that my mom never had. The way that my mother’s family spoke was the most tangible signal of working-class life they carried. The wealthier worked to discard that part of their history. They wore away their inflection when they had the mobility to live and work in other places of the world. As the wealthier moved out, my family stayed in the same area that they had known for generations. As others swore off the Boston accent, my family embraced it.
I was aware of the connotations that the Boston accent carried in pop culture, namely the way that it was used to portray stereotypically blue-collar characters, but I never conceptualized the fact that it had become ficticious to those who weren’t raised the same way as my mom. The way that my mom talked was mirrored in the caricature of working-class life portrayed in films like Good Will Hunting or Manchester by the Sea, but it was not all in cinema to me. I gravely underestimated the symbolic resonance of dialect in those stories as well as my own.
Poverty seeps into every aspect of life, even the accent with which you speak. I’ve been exempt from the brute of economic hardship but not from the inherited trauma of it. I’ve watched loved ones come home with bruised arms after one too many plasma donations. I’ve studied, at times maybe too long, when thinking of the way that I’ve falsely been labelled “the smart one” at family gatherings because I have the ability to pursue a college education. Yet it was in that pub that the lingering hurt of watching a multi-generational struggle hit me the most. It was there that I came to the realization that my family had likely worked for people who didn’t care enough to listen to their voice.
In that moment I wished that like my mother I said dahk or down cella and wore a part of my story on my tongue so that everyone in that room was forced to acknowledge it.
When my mom speaks, she has the power of generations on her side. The Boston accent, the same one that is held by all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins back East, is carried by the strongest people I’ve ever known. The tongue of my forefathers is messy, gritty, and a little bit strange but it stands for heart; for buying Powerball tickets on a Wednesday afternoon and cursing at the “closed” sign on the door of Daisy Buchanan's.
When I left the pub that day there was an unsettling feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. More than frustrated, I wished that I had worked harder to befriend my classmate. She may never know what it feels like to grow up on bedtime stories of a cursed apartment in Roslindale or to feel the camaraderie that comes from dynamite and high-balls, but I hope she talks to someone like my mom someday. If she does she’ll understand that the Boston accent is a lot more than fiction.
The whole world deserves to hear it.