Talk of the town? Not for everyone

Course takes the Boston out of Bostonians ashamed of accent

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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Before class began, Laurie Lydon had a quick question for the teacher.

“Is it OK,’’ she asked, gesturing back toward the door, “if I pahk ovah theeyah?’’

Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker looked at Lydon and smiled. On a scale of 1 to 10, Whittaker had Lydon’s Boston accent at a 9-plus. This was going to be a challenge.

There are really only two reasons anyone has ever signed up for Whittaker’s “Boston Accent Modification’’ program, where she teaches people how to “neutralize’’ their accent: because they want to act, or because they think it makes them sound dumb. In this four-week session, she had one of each.

Bo Cushing is the actor, a 16-year-old from Raynham who was hoping to scrub the last traces of Boston out of his voice before he heads to Los Angeles for the summer.

And then there was Lydon, a 49-year-old mother of three originally from Dorchester who thinks her accent makes her sound dumb, or at least uneducated. It is, she acknowledged, an idea that offends many of her friends. But she has a degree from “Nawtheastin’’ and is convinced her accent has held her back in job interviews.

The Boston dialect is perhaps the most identifiable trait of this region and its people, but Whittaker and other speech coaches are seeing a demand from people seeking to lose it. Much of that demand has to do with Hollywood’s recent fascination with all things Boston.

Cushing and Lydon were studying with Whittaker in a course offered through Boston Casting in Allston, a company that found work for many actors in Boston-set movies specifically because they sounded like a Southie bartender. But they are now seeing those same actors complain that when they audition for other roles, they’re told they sound too much like a Southie bartender.

Others looking to learn their r’s believe the pop culture portrayal of that accent has tainted it as the province of street-corner thugs (a la “The Departed’’) or the comically uncultured (see: Julianne Moore’s recent hatchet job as a Waltham housewife and Bruins fan on “30 Rock’’).

Still, as Lydon’s friends have made clear, seeking to rid oneself of that accent is not without controversy.

“I think it’s stupid,’’ said M.J. Connolly, a professor of linguistics at Boston College who specializes in regional accents. “You’re reducing diversity and flavor.’’

Rachel Dratch, a Lexington native who famously parodied the accent for years with Jimmy Fallon in the “Sully and Denise’’ skits on “Saturday Night Live,’’ said she never understood the impulse to label the accent as dumb.

“It’s so comforting to me whenever I go home,’’ she said. “I think of it as the characters, the blue-collar types, the people who would hang out in the smoking section of the high school. And a whole lot of those characters were also smart and funny and well-read.’’

Whittaker, who hails from New Jersey (but says she never had an accent), has her students read from a script at the start of each class that acknowledges there is nothing “wrong’’ with having a local dialect. “However,’’ the script continues, “I have some personal and/or professional reasons for learning how to minimize my Boston accent.’’

As the students read the script, Whittaker is constantly reaching for her secret weapon. By the time this four-week session is over, her two pupils will hate that weapon: it is a dog-training clicker, and each time they drop an r, she’s going to click them. And click them. And click them.

Linguists say that only about 15 percent of the population of Eastern Massachusetts speaks with the accent all the time, but that another 40 percent are bidialectic, meaning they can turn it off and on, depending on the situation (many report it comes on when they’re drinking or angry or with family, and especially when all three are combined). What Whittaker wants to do with her students is give them the ability to flip that switch by being aware of their accent.

To do that involves more than an introduction to the letter r. That’s the easiest part to correct, according to Janelle Winston, a speech coach in Newton who has been helping people lose their Boston accents for two decades.

“They know how to say their r’s,’’ Winston said. “They just forget to do it.’’

Contrary to popular belief, the Boston accent does not exclude all r’s. The dialect is part of the “non-rhotic’’ accent group, meaning the letter r is typically dropped when followed by a consonant sound or at the end of a word, but is pronounced when followed by a vowel sound.

The first class is basically two hours of comedy, mostly because Lydon cannot stop laughing at her inability to pronounce o-r sounds. As she read a script about a fictional woman named Courtney Porter she is clicked so often that Whittaker finally tells her to skip it and just not have any friends named Courtney.

As the session came to an end, both students reported being surprised by two distinct things: first, they were improving quickly; second, their jaws hurt.

The Boston accent, Whittaker explained, is lazy on many sounds, and their muscles simply weren’t able to hold the tension necessary for those big r sounds and to be precise on certain consonants. Both students spent a good chunk of their time massaging their jaws.

As they progressed through the four-week course, Cushing developed the ability to stay neutral about 99 percent of the time, while Lydon had shown definite improvement. But you could still feel her straining inside of words, struggling to hit her consonants to the point where her speech sounded stilted.

But each reported something strange had happened, something they did not anticipate. Many of the exercises required them to read passages in their regular Boston accent, and when they did, both agreed it felt a little phony, like they were acting. When they discussed this - the teenage actor and the middle-aged mother - they agreed on something else: They were more than a little sad to see it go. They are not alone in this.

In the summer of 1996, the Red Sox called up a young shortstop from California who became an immediate sensation for his bat - his first hit was a home run - and his name, which was just too perfect.

Nomah Gahseeaparra, as he became known in what is a showcase for the three aspects of non-rhoticity, quickly grew to love his new name - “It’s what made me feel a part of this community,’’ Garciaparra said. He even made a cameo on one of the “Sully and Denise’’ skits, because the characters were obsessed with him and his name (Dratch’s character had him autograph her chest with a “Shahpie’’).

Then, in 2004, Nomah was traded to the Chicago Cubs. He remembers walking on the field at Wrigley for the first time to meet his new teammates, who were stretching in the outfield, and as he made his way to them, the Chicago fans were screaming his name, correctly. When he stopped to introduce himself to the guys, he opened with a joke. “At least,’’ he said, “I got my r back.’’

But like Lydon and Cushing, Garciaparra said he was sad to see the accent disappear so suddenly. Then, the following year, he got a proper goodbye in Boston.

It was a cold October night, and he was packing up the condo in the Charlestown Navy Yard that had been his home during his years with the Sox when he saw two women outside stumbling home from a bar. Suddenly, one fell off the pier into the chilly water 40 feet below.

As Garciaparra ran down, the other woman fell into the water, hitting her head on the marina below. Seeing this, an uncle who had been helping him pack jumped straight into the water from the apartment balcony, and together they were able to pull the women to safety.

As they were leading the women up a dock, the one who had a big lump on her head started to come to. That’s when she got a good look at her rescuer.

“Hey, I know who you ah,’’ she said. “Yaw Nomah Gahseeaparra.’’

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker