I don’t pay much attention to Boston politics, but the recent election of Marty Walsh as mayor is of linguistic interest, as this Globe story [archived] by Billy Baker explains (if my link takes you to a signup page, do what I did and google “In Walsh, students of Bostonese have found their avatah”):

In linguistic circles, the election of Walsh is the source of some excitement, for he demonstrates what many believe to be the strongest Boston dialect in the city’s mayoral history.

[…]Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, was raised in the heart of the R-less corridor that runs through the Irish-American neighborhoods of Dorchester and South Boston. And his accent is not just strong, according to the linguists, speech trainers, and dialect coaches asked to analyze his victory speech, but a very modern take on the Boston dialect.

John J. McCarthy, a professor of linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an expert on the Boston dialect, said Walsh’s speech represents the generational shift that occurred after World War II. He said Walsh, who was born in 1967, does not have the broad “a” sound of White or Flynn, who were born before the war.

[…]What makes Walsh’s dialect so authentic, and what separates him from the endless parade of actors who have tried — and failed — to capture the local inflection, is the variability in his speech, according to experts. He does not exclude all R’s, which is what actors tend to get wrong.

[…]Among his supporters on election night, though, there was no question. Several times during his victory speech, the crowd would cheer him on with what M.J. Connolly, a professor of linguistics at Boston College, called a “very Bostonese” interpretation of his first name.
“Mah-dee!” they chanted. “Mah-dee!”

Not a sophisticated discussion, but it’s a newspaper, not Language, and hey, Baker quotes two actual linguistics professors, which is nice. (Thanks, Sven!)


  1. “but a very modern take on..”: how jolly clever of him – he must really deserve to be mayor.

  2. And for all the many ways his accent interests linguists, Walsh shines brightest in the most classic manifestation of that laziness: dropping his Rs. When he paused at one point during his speech and said “I need to drink some waduh,” the Twittersphere went a little nuts.
    If only he’d said “dink” instead of “drink” — he’d have been acclaimed as God Emperor on the spot!

  3. From what I’ve heard of Walsh, he seems to be on the more consistently non-rhotic side of the spectrum. (It is common to hear people oscillate freely between forms, sometimes using a hypercorrect labialized/velarized quality for syllable-final /r/.) But I do agree that his accent is of a modern form: he seems to lack the TRAP-BATH split, the NORTH-FORCE distinction and the non-rhotic NURSE realization which characterize the speech of people born in the first half of the 20th century.

  4. Ah, I miss Boston. The PSDS, the drawer and door that sound identical, the Japanese woman trying to buy filled cannoli from a Bostonian, which took a while. sigh.
    PSDS, you ask? Pierced ears.

  5. He’s quite right about the vowel thing: I would say ‘Mær Walsh is the ma-rof Boston.’ But Baker doesn’t mention the Wiki fact that Walsh’s parents are actually Irish. ‘Mær’ is just the common pronunciation of mayor in the non-rhotic parts of the Irish & British Isles, so he probably picked that up from them. Perhaps he acquired the additional pronunciations later on while he was running for the job. British politicians seem to pick up all sorts of stuff while they’re out there mixing with the general public. Tony Blair’s glottal stop is one example.

  6. I am a little surprised that a linguist would call dropping Rs as “laziness.” To me rhotic accents sound much lazier, and remind me of people chewing on their tongues.
    Also, Menino, the previous mayor, has a very strong Boston accent. In what sense does Walsh have a “stronger” accent? To my ear Walsh has a more “educated” Boston accent than Menino – maybe simply because he enunciates more, but also because he sounds like a lot of attorneys and professionals I know in the Boston area. The inconsistency of rhotic vs. non-rhotic is a more educated feature. Menino sounds more working class, and is more consistently non-rhotic. Usually more educated is considered less “authentic” by amateur linguists.

  7. For an authentic Boston accent, no one beats my best friend, originally from East Boston, 4th generation, grew up in the Projects, now from Reveah, retired Winthrop cop. I have trouble distinguishing his “bear” from his “beer.”

  8. >Off topic (I’m sorry but I can’t write in “Sycophant”.)
    There is a funny little-known word in Spanish a bit related to that etymology: “sicalipsis” (sexual or erotic mischief). According to our dictionary, it came from Greek words to “fig” and “rubbing or act of spreading”. Anyway, our Academy in 1917 said it came from “synkálypsis” (act of covering or masking).
    As for “sicofanta” (also “sicofante”) (impostor, slanderer), our dictionary said, until 1956, the etymological origin was: “informer who denounces someone that exports contraband figs”.

  9. Alon Lischinsky says

    Better late than never. @Jesús:

    There is a funny little-known word in Spanish a bit related to that etymology: “sicalipsis”

    Related, but only insofar as both contain an adaptation of σῦκον (sỹkon, ‘fig; vulva’). ‘Sicalíptico’ is a cultism coined in the Madrid theatre scene around the turn of the 20th century (Coromines has the details, IIRC), and has no antecedent in the Classical language. That is to say, there never was an Ancient Greek term *συκαλυπτικός (sykalyptikós).

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