Even in Colonial Boston, Bostonians Didn’t Pronounce The Letter R

November 6th, 2014

I am currently reading an excellent book about the Battle of Bunker Hill, and learned a great bit of trivia–the distinctive Boston accent of today, which involves not pronouncing the letter R, existed in colonial times! Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd. You know. I always wonder how regional accents develop, but it seems this one to be firmly well rooted.

And, this accent can prove to be very dangerous.

Bostonians in the eighteenth century had a decidedly different accent from the British, especially when it came to the pronunciation of the letter. Instead of “Fie!” (a colonial-era word used to voice opposition to something) they heard the officers shouting “Fire!” Mistakenly fearing that the¬†meetinghouse was about to be consumed in flames, they began to run for the doors as others leaped out the first story windows. ¬†Adding to the “great bustle” inside the church was the sudden appearance of the Forty-Third Regiment, its fife and drums blaring, outside the front door. Many of the patriot leaders gathered around the podium became convinced that the regulars had come to arrest them and hurriedly joined the general exodus out of the meetinghouse.

As it turned out, the soldiers had just returned from a brief march into the countryside and had no interest in what was going on inside the Old South. As the regiment continued down the street and the people inside the meetinghouse came to the realization that there was no fire, Samuel Adams called them back to order. After conducting what little business remained, the meeting was adjourned.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Boston Brahmin himself, should’ve added an caveat about Yelling “Fie” in a crowded theater in Beantown.