The United States Of Accents: New England English

If you hear “New England Accent” and think Boston: well, not exactly.
New England English represented by Portland Head Light photographed at a distance on a cloudy day.

New England is old. Well, not Europe old, but by American standards, it’s been around for a long time. Its centuries-long history has allowed plenty of time for many, many distinct accents to evolve from the original European ones. Seriously, there are a lot of accents. If you talk to a real New Englander, they’ll probably try to tell you they can figure out what town someone’s from based on dialect alone. It might not go to that extent, but that’s not terribly far from the truth.

If you clicked on this article looking for the Boston accent, well, we wrote about that in another edition in this series. Instead, we’ll be looking at the other places in New England, which aren’t given nearly as much attention. Many of them are influenced by Boston because accents don’t live in a vacuum, but there’s a lot more to the northeastern United States than pahking the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.

Eastern New England English

There are a few different boundaries you could draw in New England to divide it up, but East-West is the most apparent split. Overall, people in Eastern New England drop their “r”s (Boston is indeed in the Eastern half), and those in Western New England don’t.

The exact line dividing New England goes between Connecticut and Rhode Island and cuts through Massachusetts and Vermont. It seems to be moving eastward, however. One study that asked people to say sentences like “My father doesn’t bother to take off his shoes at home.” found that fewer and fewer people are dropping their “r”s. But there are still a few strongholds of the Eastern New England accent.

Downeast Maine Accent

The Downeast Maine accent can be a tad elusive. At least, you’re not going to find a whole lot of people who sound like the video above. Most people in the state have a far more General American sound. A thick Downeast Mainer, which refers to those who live in the most eastern part of Maine, could be confused with a Bostonian to an outsider. The “r”s are dropped, lots of verbs ending in “-ing” are pronounced with “-in” and the only real difference from Boston’s accent is that Maine’s has a rougher quality to it.

Maine, like many other places in the United States, went through a period where local accents were stigmatized. Having a thick Maine accent was associated with being working class. That’s part of the reason many accents have disappeared from the area. Fortunately, the Maine accent is in a sort of renaissance. The average Mainer won’t necessarily have a very strong accent, but there’s not as much stigma surrounding it.

You also can’t talk about Maine’s accent without mentioning “ayuh,” a local way of saying “yes.” There’s also a range of other lexicon: “culch” meaning rubbish or trash, “cunning” meaning cute and “chowderhead” meaning idiot or moron. This last one actually doesn’t have anything to do with chowder the food, by the way.

New Hampshire Accent

New Hampshire has a slightly more mild version of the Downeast Maine accent, though historically they were very heavy “r” droppers. They also have the habit of tacking “r”s onto words that don’t have them, for example saying “idea” like idear.

One of the more distinctive aspects of parts of New Hampshire is certain pockets of “French Americans.” Because New England is so close to the Canadian border, there are places affected by French-Canadian pronunciation. In places like Manchester, you may hear “think” pronounced like tink and “hallway” like allway. It’s not hugely noticeable, but the influence is there.

Rhode Island Accent

Rhode Island is the smallest state, but that doesn’t keep it from having its own distinct way of talking. The main difference for linguists between Rhode Island and the other accents mentioned so far is that it doesn’t have the cot-caught merger, meaning words like “Don” and “Dawn” are still pronounced differently there.

With a very thick Rhode Island accent, it’s going to sound a bit Italian. As of the 2000 census, Rhode Island had the highest percentage of Italians as any other state. Because of that, some people in the state sound more Jersey Shore than Providence, but they still have a touch of Bostonian “r”-lessness mixed in. This is brought to its extreme in the video above, so you’d probably hear a less pronounced version in the actual state.

Western New England English

In comparison to Eastern New England English, the western part of New England is hard to pinpoint. It’s in fact very close to a General American accent, meaning it doesn’t really sound like it’s from anywhere in particular. It has all its “r”s, and it is undergoing the Northern Cities Vowel Shift that’s become characteristic of the Midwestern accents. That doesn’t mean the whole area is homogenous, though.

Vermont Accent

The Vermont accent is the name given to the accent found in the northwestern quadrant of New England. For part of history, the eastern part of the state had the “r”-lessness of Eastern New England. As the boundary moved, Vermont lost a lot of its distinctive accents. Remnants of the past can still be heard in older, rural, generally white residents of Vermont, as seen in the video above. Now, however, it’s becoming more and more like General American, as younger generations haven’t preserved the old dialects. One other feature is that the most northern part is influenced by the French-Canadians, much like the northern part of Maine.

Western Massachusetts And Connecticut Accents

Apart from some influence from New York City in the most southern parts of this region, there’s not a whole lot that differentiates the accent in this part of the country from General American. In certain parts of Connecticut, the vowels are raised in the mouth, so you might hear “Mary” sound more like Meery, or “Aft” as ay-ift. Other parts, like New Britain, use glottal stops so words with “t” in the middle sound different: “battle” would sound kind of like baa-uhl.

New England is a diverse place, and there are bound to be accents overlooked in this piece. If anything, the point is to show that Boston is not the only place with a particular way of talking that forms part of local identity. New Englanders are as proud of their homes as anyone in the United States, and accents have always been a way to announce to the world who you are and where you’re from.

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