In Defense of the Boston Accent

Boston Magazine published a small article a few years ago regarding the introduction of a new class designed to help people lose their Boston accent. The basic premise of the class was to facilitate a linguistic reconditioning of those peculiar Boston individuals — those who speak in a style noted for the foreclosure of the letter “R” — so that their speech will be better suited for participation in the contemporary global marketplace. In other words, to be completely blunt, what these classes are really saying to the prospective student is something to the effect, “Unless you’re trying to get a job in a Hollywood movie that needs your Boston accent to fill a part, you’re hard core Boston accent makes you sound like a fool, and no company wants hire a person that talks like you:”

Alas, there are still some people who’d like to reclaim their Rs, or at least learn how to use them temporarily. For those select few, and perhaps for the broadcast journalists and actors who value non-regional diction, a one-day workshop is coming to town to help. Speech pathologist Marjorie Feinstein-Whitaker will teach the class at the Boston Center for Adult Education on November 21.

Lessons include dictation and listening activities, and readings of scripts loaded with Rs. When students read their scripts aloud, Feinstein-Whitaker makes a sound with a clicker each time she hears any hint of a Boston accent to reprimand them.(1)

But there is something else happening here with the emergence of such a class, something deeper than simply “getting rid of your Boston accent.” It is something that not only references the operation of both capitalism and gentrification in the 21st century, but also the ongoing homogenization of human language as such.

Central to global capitalism today is the flattening of all culture and social interactivity,(2) how so much of human experience is now subsumed by a singular global network for the purpose of more efficient data circulation and economic exchange. As a computational analogy, this would be like the reduction of all information, no matter how complicated the social representation, into a series of 1s and 0s — the basis of all computational language that sits behind our experience of technology. This ongoing flattening of human experience — from a collective embodied experience in the “real world” to an isolated virtual mediation in cyberspace — is probably why we hear new terminology emerging in the lexicon of both Silicon Valley and Wall Street that seek to ideologically legitimize this mutation. Terms such as “frictionless capitalism” and “smooth networks” are examples of such language that have been introduced to normalize this radical shift. What we ultimately see here, in the shift from an embodied and messy social reality to a disembodied and “smooth” virtual reality, is the desire to absolutely optimize the functionality of both capitalism and technology.

In the 19th century, Kierkegaard, in his provocative 1846 booklet The Present Age, termed such a social reduction as a process of “leveling” when he said that

at its maximum, the leveling process is a deathly silence in which one can hear one’s heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist.(3)

Although Kierkegaard’s profound insight is perhaps more true today than ever before with the rise of social media and the “deathly silence” that paradoxically defines any Twitter feed, he clearly had never heard a strong Boston accent, an accent which is anything but “a deathly silence.” No, a Boston accent is loud, colorful, and occasionally even jarring to the ears in its full and untempered expression. But this is precisely why, in the context of 21st century globalization, a local accent can almost act as a form resistance to the “monstrous abstractions” that are inherent to the leveling process of globalization. What capitalism ultimately wants today is to “flatten” all human experience into encoded technology for the purpose of facilitating and accelerating the interrelated processes of circulation, exchange, and surveillance.

The contemporary theorist Byung Chul Han, following Kierkegaard, sees that globalized capitalism

has an inherent violence that makes everything interchangeable, comparable, and thus the same. Ultimately, this total equalization leads to a negation of meaning; meaning is something incomparable.(4)

So in this twisted drive to make all things “interchangeable, comparable, and thus the same” we can better see how local accents are now experienced as an impediment, like an annoying nuisance that prevents optimal participation in the market. Thus, a class designed to “get rid of your Boston accent” emerges with a potential client base ready and waiting.

This is a perfect opportunity to highlight a key point of global capitalism today, which is the way it masks its raging desire for efficiency, optimization, and Sameness. Paradoxically, it achieves this end by constantly encouraging us to “use our voice,” “to be different,” and “to be a disruptor,” etc. Neoliberal ideology wants us to think of ourselves as being a rebel of sorts, as constantly “resisting” the powers that be, so long as that resistance does not effect global capitalism itself. In other words, as a society of the most rigid Sameness is being created in front of our eyes, we are made to think that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of diversity and difference.

To put it another way, as this ideological distortion specifically relates to something like the Boston accent, ideology appears to love the Boston accent even as it tries to rid itself of it: loves to hear it spoken in Hollywood films, loves to poke fun of it on Saturday Night Live, and loves to play around with it in YouTube videos. Consumer culture always gives the appearance of appreciating difference and diversity, whether it be in regards to colorful local accents or anything else. But, the moment it comes to serious participation in the global marketplace, something like a strong Boston accent is no longer an endearing cultural artifact to laugh at, but rather a liability.

But why is it a liability?

Precisely because, to use the terminology of Kierkegaard again, a strong Boston accent “resists leveling,” it resists the abstractions and homogeneity that ultimately drive the core logic of globalization/gentrification in the 21st century.

A process like gentrification, which is ultimately just a particularly intense strain of global capitalism within the urban topology itself, does not like the Boston accent at all. It can not tolerate it in the least, which is precisely why so many of the people who actually have Boston accents have been progressively priced out of the various neighborhoods that they once inhabited.

The accent of the Yuppy, paradoxically what we could call a non-accent, is a completely and utterly “leveled” linguistic vibration. It resists nothing, and therefore has no character. The flattened and vanilla accent of the Yuppy is fully congruent with a social process such as gentrification: it reproduces the globalized Same of neoliberalism without any material resistance whatsoever.

 

LANGUAGE AND LIFE

 

For Jacques Lacan, the symbolic order is what constitutes our experience of day to day reality, how we naturally experience our surrounding environment: the symbolic order is the totality of signs, sociocultural formations, and the system of language that human beings are always-already immersed within. Although the symbolic order is ultimately a universal structure by which we experience social reality, this universality is modified in the infinite permutations of local cultures, local symbols, and local languages, ad infinitum that constitute the wide array of human community.

What this means is that during our brief stay here on Planet Earth we are all ultimately symbolic creatures; we are grounded by the order of language, and we are passively structured by a series of particular and abstract interlocking symbolic formations.

This is a good way to think about what a local accent even is. A local accent is a historicized linguistic vibration, a unique signature of communal speech that denotes a particular mode of enunciation linked to a particular geography. Something like the Boston only exists in Boston, just like the accent of the bayou only exists in the Gulf Coast. In other words, there is a link between accent and place; there is a relationship between a certain linguistic vibration and a specific topology:

The classic example of a dialect is the regional dialect: the distinct form of a language spoken in a certain geographical area. For example, we might speak of Ozark dialects or Appalachian dialects, on the grounds that inhabitants of these regions have certain distinct linguistic features that differentiate them from speakers of other forms of English.(5) 

But this, in many ways, is the problem today: how the link between accent (or dialect) and place is coming under great stress from the effects of surplus technology and de-regulated capitalism, a point I tried to convey in the title of my book There is No Such Thing as Boston. My point in that title was that the city of Boston is not simply something that can be experienced at a specific juncture of latitude and longitude, as in 42.36N, 71.05W, the formal geodesic coordinates of Boston. Boston, like any city or town, is a place. And all places have their mode of language that is rooted in a particular formation of the historically contingent symbolic order.

What is absolutely crucial to note here is how “the Boston accent,” although unique to the greater Boston area, was by no means a uniform mode of speech. Actually, it was multiple and displayed a wonderful diversity in its day to day expression. For instance, the Boston accent of someone living in working class Charlestown would be very different from the version that the Kennedy brothers spoke throughout their political career, or how an African-American living in the Mission Hill projects would speak the Boston accent. The seeming universality of “the Boston accent” was fundamentally inscribed by differentials; demarcated by a rich multiplicity of enunciation.

Whereas, on the far contrary, the accent of the contemporary Yuppy has far less difference. There is very little diversity, or room for new linguistic conjunctions: it is standardized by the logic of gentrification, which is ultimately the logic of Sameness. But the uniform speech of the Yuppy is not only pointing to the collapse of authentic linguistic diversity in a city like Boston, but also referencing the ongoing technological standardization to the totality of human life in the 21st century.

The uncomfortable recognition here, as we speak about the degeneration of local cultures and languages, is that the homogenized language of the Yuppy may be the least of our concerns. I claim that we are all now in the process of collectively learning a new, universal language in the early decades of the 21st century. This nascent language — universal, homogenized, and gentrified — is ultimately the language that undergirds the ideological and material forces of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and our globalized consumer culture. These new planetary forces that have brought with them a new language — codes, algorithms, and computational binaries — are in many ways the precise opposite of the linguistic sense of belonging, the sense of being-at-home, that a local accent can bring forth for its speakers. Whereas the local accent brings forth a sense of familiarity, and therefore a sense of freedom, these new globalized forces entrap language into a pre-constructed exactitude based upon a capitalist-mathematical logic.

Code is the basic structure of this new globalized language. Code is the new form that is entrapping all other languages into its universal rhythm.

The Italian philosopher and media theorist Bifo Beradi contrasts the distinction between code and human language in the following passage:

Language has infinite potency, but the exercise of language happens in finite conditions of history and existence. Thanks to the establishment of a limit, the world comes to exist as a world of language. Grammar, logic, and ethics are all based on the imposition of a limit. Code is a limited exercise of language and, simultaneously, it is the imposition of a performing and productive limit. Limits can be productive, but outside of the space of limitation, infinite possibilities of language persist immeasurably.

Code implies syntactic exactness of linguistic signs: connection. Compatibility and consistency and syntactic exactness are the conditions of code’s operational functionality. Code is language in debt.

So whereas code is language in debt, we can see that a local accent is more like a linguistic surplus; it is an excess when the cup of language runneth over into the place where people live, work, and play.

What this means is that one should defend the Boston accent today not strictly to defend the speech of Boston itself, but also to defend a local dialect spoken in the deserts of Ethiopia or in the jungles of Peru: the defense of local accents is also the defense of local environments, local cultures, and human community itself. To defend a local accent today is to defend the very notion of diversity in its global dimension.

And, in the same way, one should not defend the Boston accent strictly in its historical enunciation. The Boston accent, like all accents, are open linguistic processes rather than fixed patterns of speech. Meaning, one should defend the Boston accent knowing full well it could develop and change as it progresses into the future, just as all languages surely do.

The paradox here is that the elimination of local accents — that is to say, the elimination of the link between language and place — is often seen as a progressive feature of globalization: as the world becomes more interconnected, we naturally lose our provincial ties and become more cosmopolitan through our engagement with greater cultural and technological forces. But the truth is the exact opposite appears to be happening. What we are rather seeing take place is a dumbing down, a frightening homogenization of culture when transposed upon the global network, and, with that, the emergence of a dangerous reactionary politics looking to violently recover a sense of roots that have been foreclosed by the globalization process.   

 

 

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