An interesting aspect of any language is all the different dialects that come along with it. Many dialects are formed in different cities and regions of the country and a person can easily figure out where someone is from just by the way they speak. But as noted in How We Talk by Allan Metcalf, “the use of dialect in movies gives dialect a bad name, since it can be used to stereotype narrow-mindedness and ineptitude” (Metcalf 180).
In the film directed by Gus Van Sant, “Good Will Hunting,” the Boston dialect is emphasized, but not shone in a flattering light. The main character, Will Hunting, is a native of South Boston and a janitor at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. But what most people don’t know about Will is that he is a mathematical genius. But he and a few of his good friends spend their time drinking beer in the local pubs and hitting baseballs in batting cages. Will also has the tendency to get into fights due to his horrible past as an abused child passed from foster home to foster home. A professor at MIT, Gerald Lambeau, discovers Will’s hidden talents one day when he sees him scribbling the answer to an impossible proof on a chalkboard and makes a deal with Will. If Will agrees to go to therapy and work with him on his mathematical proofs, he will get Will out of his pending jail time. Will agrees to see Gerald’s psychologist friend from college, Sean.
Sean opens Will’s eyes gradually through the therapy sessions and encourages Will to use his incredible gift and follow his heart. Throughout the film, there is an opposition between the poorer locals of Boston and the academia crowd of MIT and Harvard students and faculty. The locals have a thick Boston accent and those associated with the colleges and higher learning had a surprising majority of British accents. I found this distinction that was clearly made between the classes using dialect to be rather interesting and I focused my research on this element in the movie.
While I was watching the movie, I first began to take note of the grammar and vocabulary that was used by the different characters. Then right away I noticed that there was a very noticeable separation between two classes of people. Those represented by the Boston accent were construction workers, janitors, and other menial labor workers. The professors and students at the universities in Boston had either English accents or else nothing extremely discernable. Once I found this obvious distinction, I began to concentrate on the little differences between what those with Boston accents were saying as compared to those with British accents. The content was very different and I had no doubt this was done on purpose. Not only was the pronunciation different, but the vocabulary, grammar, and frequency of swearing was also vastly different. Since there was only one female main character, I couldn’t have had any conclusive results regarding differences in gender of different dialects. I decided that the director wished to draw a heavy line between the higher class and the lower class and he did so using dialect as a subtle and unconscious signal to the viewers.
Will and three of his good friends all displayed Boston accents. It was mentioned later in the film that Will had never been on a plane or even out of Boston. This is because he was part of the poorer class and probably had no money to travel. All of his friends with the Boston accent had probably been born and raised in Boston as well and will remain the rest of their lives there because they can’t afford to move. This is one way their Boston accent gives away their social class. Their accent is lacking the ‘r’ sound. For example, Will’s best friend, Chuckie, said, “When are we going to the Havahd bah?” (Harvard bar) Some other words that I picked up on were aht (art), faht (fart), and chahge (charge). Chuckie also used slang and dialectal grammar when he asked the girl in the bar, “Why didn’t you give me none of that nasty hoochie-woochie you usually throw at me?” Her response was “Fuck you.” Fuck is a curse word that comes up seemingly every few minutes among the native Boston speakers. Will says “fuck” to anyone and everyone including his superiors.
All of the other “menial labor” parts in the movie had Boston accents as well. For example, the guys walking by that Will and his friends got into a fight with on the basketball court had Boston accents. The man in the janitorial office who directed Dr. Lambeau to Will had a strong New York accent. He even exhibited cursing at his superiors when he called Dr. Lambeau an asshole. The waiter in the bar who brings Jared and Sean their food had a Boston accent that was apparent when he laid down napkins and said, “So ya don’t get sticky fingas.” On the other hand, all of the characters in the movie who were supposed to have had a college education or are in the process of getting one had British or other dialects.
There were no southern accents in any of the characters. All of the MIT students who spoke had indiscernible accents. Jared Lambeau, the MIT professor and winner of the Field’s Medal in Mathematics had a slight Irish accent. He also spoke using prescriptive grammar. For example, when asking the person who solved the proof to come forward he said, “Without further adieu, come forward silent rogue and receive thy prize.” He also told the waiter in the bar that he wanted “Perrier” to drink. The waiter looked confused and Sean replied, “That’s French for ‘club soda.'” He could have said club soda and probably knew the bartender didn’t know what Perrier was. He was merely being snobby and showing off his cultural background that he presumed this bartender didn’t have. The first psychologist that Will went to see spoke the same way. When Will suggested that he “putt from the rough” (was gay), Psychologist Henry Lipkin responded in his thick British accent with, “now no more shenanigans, no more tomfoolery, no more ballyhoo.”
The next psychologist had a Middle Eastern accent. Later in the movie, Will meets a girl in a bar who is studying to be a doctor at Harvard. Her name is Skylar and she has a heavy British accent and later in the movie mentions that she grew up in England and attended private school there. Interestingly, the one character who doesn’t fit neatly into these two genres of “uneducated and Boston accent” or “educated and British accent” is Sean, Will’s last try at a psychologist whom he ends up seeing regularly. Sean went to college with Gerald Lambeau and is now a professor of psychology at a school in Boston that is unidentified but it is suggested that it’s not as prestigious as MIT. Sean is from South Boston, like Will, and has a noticeable Boston accent. But he is the only character in the movie that has a Boston accent and has a college degree. He often cursed around all of the characters and even had little nicknames for Will like “chief” and “sport.”
Based on my observation of the film, I have come to the conclusion that the writers of this movie relied on the stereotype of native Boston accents belonged to speakers who had little to no education. They also played on the stereotype that English or foreign accents automatically meant that the person was distinguished, intelligent, or using “proper” English. I found it curious that the lower class speakers used curse words quite frequently while those characters representing the higher class used them much less. Specifically, Gerald Lambeau didn’t curse once throughout the film, even when he was very angry. Yet Will and his friends were using curse words as frequently as they were using conjunctions. This was another way the writers of the film portrayed the classes. The writers used the grammar, slang, and cursing to add to Will’s friends rough and uneducated characters.
It seems that Boston was an ideal place for this movie to take place in because there is that stereotypical distinction between the hoity-toity universities and the Boston natives. But the film failed to represent the Boston accent accurately. Presumably not every single native Boston speaker works on a construction site or cleans toilets. Many natives from Boston hold very prestigious positions in the city, but not one of those characters were shown besides Sean. Even Sean was contrasted with the great Gerald Lambeau who he doesn’t quite measure up to. That’s why Sean was the only one able to reach Will in the end. He could relate to Will’s abuse because they were both from the same background. Will learned to trust Sean because he wasn’t like all of the other snobby professors-he was one of Will’s people.
Good Will Hunting. DVD. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Universal, 1997.
Metcalf, Allan. How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.