Kevin White was a may-uh. So was Ray Flynn.
Thomas M. Menino is sometimes a may-uh, sometimes a monosyllabic mare, and almost always difficult to understand for other reasons.
And now comes Marty Walsh, the mayor-elect, who often doesn’t just skip the Y or the R in his new job title. He skips them both and says, “maeh.”
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.
Menino, his predecessor, certainly has strong traces of the Boston dialect — the technical term for what is usually referred to as the Boston accent — but he comes from the western side of the city, where the edges of the accent tend to be softer. And when people analyzed Menino’s speaking, it was more for his enunciation than his pronunciation.
“The question of how he pronounces things is obscured by the fact that he doesn’t say anything very distinctly,” according to one dialect expert.
But 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.
A good place to hear that “a” shift is in the way Walsh pronounces the neighborhood he grew up in. He’s from “Dohchestah,” rather than the “Dawchestah” of old.
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.
The Boston dialect is part of the “non-rhotic” accent group, meaning the R is typically dropped when followed by a consonant sound or at the end of a sentence, but is pronounced when followed by a vowel sound. During his victory speech on election night, when Walsh praised his predecessor, he typically referred to him as “Mare Menino.” In other instances when the word stood alone, he would say may-uh or maeh.
“He has the variability in his speech that is authentic,” said Marjorie Whittaker of the Whittaker Group, a corporate speech trainer who often works with locals who are seeking to neutralize their Boston accent. “He can say ‘utha’ and then the next minute say ‘other.’ It changes from sentence to sentence. That’s why actors attempting the Boston accent often sound so terrible. Every word is ‘utha,’ ‘mutha.’ It sounds like a caricature. People with an actual Boston accent wouldn’t say ‘I pahked my cah in the Hahvid Yahd’ because it’s not so consistent.”
Paul Meier, the director of the International Dialects of English Archive at the University of Kansas and the author of “The South Boston Dialect,” a popular book for actors trying to capture the Boston sound, said that the willingness of Bostonians to improvise is something he has never seen in other regional speakers. As an example, he points to a part of Walsh’s victory speech where he says “hahd werk.”
Another thing Walsh does that is a hallmark of the Boston dialect is the nasal delivery, particularly in his short nasal “aw” sound, according to Janelle Winston, a speech coach in Newton. You can hear this in two things he said a lot during his campaign: “Bawstin” and “Jawhn Cawnnelly.”
‘He has the variability in his speech that is authentic.’
John Connolly, Walsh’s former opponent, certainly has a softer Boston dialect, and has moved closer to the non-R-dropping standard, according to McCarthy, who says the same thing happened to him in the same way: They both grew up speaking the Boston dialect, then went to Harvard.
Instead, Connolly would fall into the 40 percent of Eastern Massachusetts speakers that linguists label as bi-dialectic, meaning they can turn the Boston off and on, depending on the situation. Walsh, on the other hand, would fall into the 15 percent of the population that linguists say speak in the Boston dialect all the time.
The use of the mouth is somewhat lazy in the Boston dialect, which is why people who take classes to neutralize the accent often find their jaws are sore at the end of the session. 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.
The Boston accent has long been a source of ribbing from the rest of the country, from the Kennedy-based Mayor Joe Quimby character on “The Simpsons,” to the Sully and Denise characters on “Saturday Night Live” who were obsessed with “Nomah Gahseeaparra.” Walsh has already been on the tail end of that easy joke — Time magazine called his accent “ragged” — but there is also much support. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley recently spoke of how much he liked Walsh’s accent.
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!”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.