Friday, May 01, 2009

Searching for the Elusive New England Accent

Aside from a few vacation jaunts to other parts of this country and a few foreign lands, I have lived my entire life in New England. My parents are both from New England, most of my family was born in bred in New England, I married a girl from New England and a majority of my friends are from New England.

These are my credentials.

I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that the New England accent is one of the most elusive creatures on the planet. People from other parts of the country try to mimic our accent when they are acting in movies or television shows that take place here, but they never get it right. Why is that? Why is Hollywood so tone-deaf to a proper New England accent?

It can't be because there aren't a lot of people in California who have never been here; the streets are clogged with people who grew up here or went to college in this area or at least know someone from one of the six states. *

* BTW the accents in these six states differ greatly: Massachusetts is a more guttural—the accent comes from both the gut and nasal cavity, Rhode Island is even more so. New Hampshire and Vermont are a bit more slow and pastoral than the other two with Maine being even more slower and pronounced than its northern brethren.

The then there's Connecticut--the cousin of the region, that married up a level and sort of forgot it's roots—it's a bastardization of the higher society New York way of speaking mixed with the Massachusetts tongue. It's almost hard to categorize Connecticut as a part of New England, it should be part of the New York area, but the farther east you go, the more you can hear the accents.

What prompted this question is that Aly and I are watching a TV series called “Brotherhood”. It's a show that first aired on Showtime—we're checking it out on DVD—that is a dramatization of the real life Bulger brothers, except that it takes place in Rhode Island instead of Massachusetts. Like I said, it's a pretty decent show; though it is a bit overwrought with too much melodrama and the show is forced to be compared to “The Sopranos”.

Though, from Showtime's perspective I think that that is exactly what they wanted. Unfortunately for them the actors in their roles can't touch “The Sopranos” cast on their best days and the stories and characters aren't as smart or as interesting either. But, it's no crime (WORD PLAY!) to not reach “The Sopranos” level, that was truly one of the most amazing shows ever.

Anyway, what brings this show from a solid B average to a C+ is that the accents are so. Fucking. Terrible. People are dropping r's, than picking them back up. One actress can't decide whether she's going to use an Irish brogue or talk like she spent her childhood in South Boston. And when the cast has to emote, it's even worse.

It really snaps the viewer right out of the show. If I was the producer, I would have told the entire cast (because there is not one—not one!—person on this show that can pull off an even passable New England accent) to skip the accents. It was like when Kevin Costner was making “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” back in the early 90s, the story goes that he worked for weeks with a speech coach to try and nail down an English accent and he just couldn't do it.*

* And judging from his role in “JFK”, he couldn't master a southern accent either.

So the movie producers essentially said, “Screw it, do your Kevn Costner trademark midwestern accent and let's make some money.” And they did. On this show, they went for reality and it bit them in the ass.

What's my point? Fair question, and I have a few. One: it's amazing to me that something so small as how your characters talks can actually destroy a movie or TV show. I've always been a proponent of listen to the message, not the messenger because it's more important as to what is being said, than how's it being said. Evidently, this isn't always true.

Second point: I wonder if this sort of thing bothers people from different countries and different regions of the US. Most people are proud of where they came from and completely screwing up the way that a region speaks is a gigantic no-no. Maybe, deep down, we feel that if the actors can't get something as simple (to us natives, anyway) as how we speak then maybe they won't get the complexities of our region correct; thus losing any sort of bond or trust between viewer and artist.

This entry is coming from a person who dropped their Massachusetts accent back in high school because I felt that it sounded ignorant and stupid, plus I wanted to set myself apart from everyone that I knew. And it worked too, there have been times when people have asked me where I'm from and when I proudly tell them Massachusetts, they seem genuinely shocked. Yes, I know that it's completely pretentious, but the only rationale that I have is that teenagers are a pretentious lot.

I do like the way that I speak now and while I may not say anything intelligent, at least it sounds refined (I guess). But, with the way the world is growing smaller and things are becoming more homogenized, maybe a tell tale accent isn't the worst thing in the world. It's like a secret handshake that's hard to master and no matter where you are in this world, if there are New England compatriots around, you can at least ingrain yourself a bit and remind a fellow traveler of home. That's not a bad thing.

The one thing I have found out; your past never fully goes away. Every once in awhile, especially when I'm tired or drunk, I'll slip back into my New England accent, turn a few “R's” into “Ah's”, lose the “G's” from the ends of words. And when I get really excited I'll unconsciously bust out a few “wickeds” into the conversation. And it always hits me: you can drop try your damndest to drop your roots, but they're always going to find you.


Gal Friday said...

I completely agree about Hollywood never getting the N.E. accent right. It always bothers me(a New Englander, too--have lived in Maine, Mass. and RI), so you are not the only one.
I remember Tom Hanks's strange supposed New England accent in "Catch Me If You Can"--like he wanted to make it a Southern version or something. I haven't bothered to watch "Brotherhod", though..

an0m0ly said...

I grew up in CA (please don't call it Cali), and have acted for most of my adult life. Accents are a hobby. I collect them like some collect baseball hats--one for every place I've lived. I can do NoCal and SoCal, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Chicago, Queens, New Jersey, etc.; but even though I've lived here 14 years, I still can't do an authentic Boston area accent.

The accent is rarely done right because it's not just one main version with slight variations. It's hundreds. Many communities in N.E. are among the oldest in the country. Accents here have been evolving and ripening for centuries. They are specific to each neighborhood, sometimes to particular blocks of houses. Guys in Southie complain about Matt Damon's accent in 'Good Will Hunting' because it was "obviously" a Cambridge accent. Natives can tell the difference between Eastie and Charlestown, Dorchester and Quincy.

No wonder nobody gets it right.


I was born and raised in Connecticut,Lived there all my life until moving to Alaska 6 years ago.I love a New England Accent.When I run into someone from back home,I love trying to guess exactly where they're from based on the version of the accent.
It would be nice to use some actors from New England in movies.Especially if the story takes place there! I think it sounds more intelligent than some
other accents.Eastern Ct is a combination of Rhode Island Massachusetts,Long Island and Maine.But..They use some words and
terms not used elsewhere..Its Great!

Anonymous said...

I hear you on the Hollywood accents, absolutely nobody can get it right, and when they botch it, boy is it bad. It ruins the entire movie for me.

Thank God for Matt and Ben in "Good Will Hunting." They are the standard bearers of Boston/New England accents.

As far as I'm concerned if any actor needs to learn a New England/Boston accent I would definitely point them in the Good Will Hunting direction.

Michael said...

It was fun to see the effits made in "The Depahted". I have to say, and this is wicked strange, but Leo DiCaprio had a much bettah and believable accent than natives Matt Damon and Donnie Wahlburg.
Leo has become a wicked good actah!

Ted Russell said...

Hollywood botched it again. Captain Phillips is a fantastic movie, but as soon as I heard Tom Hanks do what was supposed to be an accent of someone from Underhill, VT, I cringed. First of all, Underhill, outside of Burlington, is in the Champlain Valley of WESTERN Vermont, where the accent has no resemblance to Eastern New England. There is a distinctive accent spoken by long-time natives of the region, but someone like Captain Phillips would speak like most Vermonters, meaning essentially no accent whatsoever. Furthermore, his attempt of a generic New England accent was terrible. Hollywood will never get it.

Ted Russell said...
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Ted Russell said...
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