Boston “Brother”

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While waiting in Boston’s South Station last week, a man with a thick accent asked for information about the coming bus. After hearing my reply, he said “Thanks, Brother!” (That is, “Bruthah” brʌðə). “Brother,” as commonplace as the word may seem, is a renowned bit of slang in Boston English (and probably elsewhere in Eastern New England), roughly akin, it seems, to British and Australian “mate.” But why (and how) is the word particular to the city?

In an interview on a talk show, Ben Affleck once claimed that “brother” has various meanings in Boston depending on context (I wish I could find the bit on Youtube). This observation may have been exaggerated for the purposes of humor, so I wouldn’t assign it much sociolinguistic rigor. But the word definitely seems to be a common term of endearment in that area.

“Brother,” of course, has had currency in other subcultures and ethnolects, but like “wicked,” Boston uses the word in a way that seems unique to the region. Yet I can’t quite put my finger on how it’s unique. Perhaps it’s the way the word can be applied to total strangers (like a fellow passenger on a bus) that seems so unusual.

Unfortunately, like many household words with dialectally specific meanings, “brother” is a search engine black hole. So in lieu of articles or books on the subject, two plausible theories come to mind:

1.) Unabbreviated “brother” was once common everywhere, but remained stronger in Boston while there was a shift toward “bro” (or other terms) elsewhere in America.

2.) “Brother” is an entirely separate development in Boston.

Lending credence to hypothesis 1 is that Boston is a strikingly conservative city, linguistically-speaking. For instance, as far as I can tell it is once of the only major cities in America where young, Caucasian English speakers are quite so resolutely non-rhotic.

Then again, that very linguistic conservatism could suggest “brother” evolving from an entirely different source. Any Bostonians care to comment?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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9 Responses to Boston “Brother”

  1. Scot Colford says:

    Huh. I’m a Bostonian only since 2003 (central mass and north shore since 1998), so I’m unsure. But the rising use of “brother” instead of, say, “man” (as was common when I was growing up in Ohio in the 70s) is something I assumed was a general American thing. You seem to suggest it isn’t, which is quite fascinating to me!

    I would be surprised to find “brother” as localized as the use of “wicked” (as an intensifier), though. Is your analysis purely based on this visit, or are there data to support your claim that “brother” (in this sense) is a localized term?

    • Mass95 says:

      You have a point that use of the word ‘bro’ has increased across the country in recent years, but I must say I think their is some evidence of usage specific to the Boston area. In my experience as a native of a blue collar suburban Boston town the word brother is used most often by middle aged working class white men who usually have a noticeable accent, similar to the man described in the article above. Not an altogether progressive bunch I highly doubt that this feature of their vocabulary is a recent development. I hate to say it but based on my experience many in this demographic still hold racist sentiments against African-Americans. Given that the recent rise in the use of the word bro across the country can largely be attributed to Black culture it seems very unlikely to me that older white people in Massachusetts would have readily adopted it.

  2. Doug says:

    Consider that African American men have used the term among themselves for decades — maybe more in the past than today (I don’t know) — but certainly not just in Boston.
    Consider also Boston’s fraught history of racial tension, going back to the Busing crisis of the 1970’s and earlier.
    I have a theory, admittedly a half-baked one.
    As you point out, the speaker was “a man with a thick accent.” I assume you mean a white man. I’m white, I’ve lived in the Boston area most of my life, and I’ve generally heard this usage from white men with thick accents. The thick accent itself is a fairly reliable marker of the speaker’s working class origins.
    Even rhotic speakers from this area will sometimes use the word with a deliberately feigned accent, as if putting cultural quotation marks around it.
    So I think that the use of “brutha” is best seen as a kind of linguistic re-appropriation, one which — consciously or not — asserts the speaker’s very working-class-whiteness, and solidarity with others of the same tribe. Not sure how you feel about that, Ben, but you been appropriated, brutha!

    • Catherine (@ccnomad) says:

      “Even rhotic speakers from this area will sometimes use the word with a deliberately feigned accent, as if putting cultural quotation marks around it.” <- So beautifully put! I love that you said this. It made me nod my head emphatically with identification: I do this with New York-isms! I'm from Seattle & have lived in New York for a year now. I've found two things happening with my own speech: I'll catch my short Os in a mild (or sometimes less mild) low-back chain shift, and I'll say phrases like *'How YOU doin'?' with an implied wink, having put said cultural quotation marks around it.

      *This is a widely recognizable example, but it goes for more subtle, specific non-catch phrases; that is, quotidian things a New Yorker would have reason to say that a non-New Yorker would not, such as, "Get off at One-Four-Five & Broadway". In that example, I'll find myself pronouncing it, "Get awf at One-Four-Five and Brawdway", (mild version), even possible de-rhotisizing 'Four' a bit.

      After a few months in Ireland, I noticed the rhythms & cadence of my sentences matching up somewhat with Irish English, though my pronunciations stayed nearly true to my Seattle origin.

  3. Neil Bardhan says:

    You’re not thinking of Ben Stiller in Zoolander, are you?

  4. Spice says:

    When I think of “brother” as a general term for a male interlocutor, it reminds me of the Depression-era “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and it seems like one of those words that was somewhat more common in the past.

    You mention that Boston is conservative in dialect in terms of preserving some older usages — and I agree, though off the top of my head the only example I can think of is a word like “spa” (for convenience store). So isn’t your theory #1 more likely?

    That being said, the people who most frequently call me “brother” are people who are heavily involved in the labor movement, and perhaps there is some sort of union solidarity or more generally a white-working-class thing going on there as others have mentioned above.

    Even though I spent most of my childhood elsewhere, it is sometimes hard for me to tell what is strictly local versus more general American usage. If you look at some of the online listings of words that are supposedly unique to Boston, it’s hard to imagine that many of them are not used elsewhere… just to take a few quick examples from Wiktionary: “bulkhead” (entrance to cellar), “carriage” (baby stroller), “clicker” (remote control), “flurries” (light snow). I’d be really surprised if these were not more broadly used, but again I can never tell for sure. This use of “brother” seems to be in that category — perhaps more common here but I don’t see it as unique. Just my two cents.

  5. Ellen K. says:

    Does the use of different symbols for the two vowels in brʌðə indicate an actual difference in vowel quality, or just that one is stressed and one is unstressed? For me, the two would be the same. (That is, those two symbols represented the same vowel quality, and if I were to pronounce “brother” non-rhoticly, both syllables would have the same vowel sound.)

    • Peter S. says:

      I’m American, and my /ʌ/ and /ə/ are noticeably different. In particular, butt has a different vowel than an unstressed but, and America ends with /ʌ/ but Maria ends with /ə/ (I think because of the stress pattern). I don’t know whether they’re different in the Boston accent, though.

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