[lg policy] A Mannah of Speaking

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Sep 3 15:14:08 UTC 2009

September 3, 2009

A Mannah of Speaking


WHEN Edward M. Kennedy hit the presidential campaign trail in Iowa in
2003 on behalf of his fellow Massachusetts senator, John Kerry,
nothing delighted Mr. Kennedy more than the voters on the rope line
who told him that they were honored to meet “a real Boston
politician.” “And they said they could even understand what I was
saying in spite of my accent,” Mr. Kennedy said with a laugh during an
interview with this reporter on the Kerry campaign bus at the time.
“My mother would have liked that.”

No one else from Boston, or anywhere in New England, has imprinted the
regional accent on the national consciousness as Senator Kennedy did,
given his decades in the public spotlight, his own bid for the
presidency in 1980 and the news footage of his speeches that have been
on television since his death last week. The loss of Mr. Kennedy comes
at a time when the various Boston accents — the Irish one, the Italian
one, the Brahmin one, the Kennedy one and others — also seem in
shorter supply than when the Kennedy brothers were entering the scrum
of Massachusetts politics, where missing r’s and elongated a’s were
evidence of authenticity.

Through much of the 20th century, well-known figures like Katharine
Hepburn and William F. Buckley evinced upper-crust bearing with
accents and intonations that many Americans associated with a Brahmin
or Boston accent. The actor Jim Backus memorably adopted a variation
of the accent to play the fabulously wealthy Thurston Howell III, on
“Gilligan’s Island.” And while the Kennedy accent is still mimicked —
most notably by Mayor Quimby on “The Simpsons” — the progenitors of
those accents seem to be in decline; witness the faded Boston accent
of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg after his years in Manhattan. M. J.
Connolly, a professor of linguistics at Boston College who studies
regional accents, estimated that about 15 percent of people in the
greater Boston area use some form of a Boston accent on a regular
basis. Yet he added that about 50 percent of people in the area “have
the accent and can shift into that mode when required, but use a more
standard American English in their primary working and social

“On the one hand, migration, especially into southern New Hampshire,
has decreased the number of accented speakers in this area,” Professor
Connolly said. “But I have also noticed a certain upswing of the
accent, a certain local pride, perhaps reinforced by various movies
and TV series. Teddy Kennedy being in the news may well cause at least
a temporary upsurge, not only from Teddy clips being played
continually on broadcast media but also interviews with ‘local color’
appearing.” Some natives of Boston neighborhoods like Charlestown,
Dorchester, the North End and South Boston would argue that
celebrities like Hepburn, who grew up in Connecticut, or Buckley,
whose early education was in England, did not have legitimate Boston
accents. But many there did see, or come to see, Senator Kennedy as
one of them.

For many Bostonians with the accent, the r is replaced by “ah” or “aw”
when the letter follows a vowel: “Color” becomes “cuh-lah,” “square”
becomes “skway-ah,” and, of course, “car” becomes “caah.” The letter
a, meanwhile, is often pronounced broadly: “father” becomes
“faaa-thah,” and so on.  While Mr. Kennedy did not usually drop his
r’s, he often stretched his a’s; his accent, which in Massachusetts
was known more as a Kennedy accent than a Boston accent, also included
touches like referring to “health care as the cause awww’ve my life.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian and author of “The
Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys,” recalled that Senator Kennedy’s father,
Joseph P. Kennedy, once referred to his youngest son Teddy as “a
gregarious Irish cop” — not only because he was a hand-clasper and
back-slapper, but also because of his bellowing voice with an accent
that the Boston Irish could relate to. “He had a greater gift for
delivering a stem-winding speech than Bobby or Jack had, and there was
also something about his accent that helped average people relate to
Teddy even if he was up giving a speech to a room filled with
thousands of voters,” Ms. Goodwin said.

While born in Boston in 1932, Mr. Kennedy grew up in New York, Florida
and London as well as Massachusetts, making it hard to pinpoint the
exact origins of his accent. His parents and siblings had variations
of the accent. Mr. Kennedy attended Milton Academy prep school and
Harvard College, where he rubbed shoulders with plenty of Brahmins.
But Ms. Goodwin also notes that he was particularly close to his
maternal grandfather, John Francis Fitzgerald, known as Honey Fitz, a
leading Irish-American politician who became mayor of Boston.

“Teddy loved to go talk to his grandfather about stories about
Massachusetts and people in Boston, and the two men shared a roaring
voice and certain cadences, for sure,” Ms. Goodwin said. “You see
Teddy’s face in Honey Fitz’s face, and you hear aspects of one voice
in the other’s.”  If Mr. Kennedy grew up in a time when his electorate
judged local politicians’ credibility in part by the depth of their
Boston Irish, Italian or Brahmin accents, Massachusetts politicians
who came to power after the senator say that today’s voters seem less
inclined to raise an eyebrow when they hear accent-free diction. “I
decided to plead guilty early on to being a filthy Yankee right away,
and to admit that my family did not come over on the Mayflower,” said
William F. Weld, who was governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997,
and grew up in a wealthy enclave of Long Island. “We sent the servants
over on the Mayflower,” he said in an interview last week.

As Boston has become a magnet for immigrants, with sizable Asian and
Cape Verdean populations, it’s easy to imagine that the various Boston
accents might disappear from the younger generations. Not so, said
William Kemeza, the president of Boston College High School and a
former teacher there. “In many of our students, the accent is not as
pronounced as it was in Ted Kennedy, but I notice it frequently, as
when a student at lunch struggles to ask for ‘petatah’ chips — potato
chips,” Mr. Kemeza wrote in an e-mail message. “Interestingly I think
I can hear it even among students whose parents were first generation
immigrants — Cape Verdean students talking about the Red Sawx.”
Senator Kennedy would have been delighted to hear that, too.

-- http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/03/fashion/03accent.html?_r=1&ref=us&pagewanted=print
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