It was a few minutes of chitchat in a restaurant: My friend and I exchanged pleasantries with the woman beside us as we waited for our respective tables to be ready. And somewhere in the conversation the woman mentioned that she was living in Medford, a city a few miles away.
Comparing notes afterward, my friend and I agreed: The woman's pronunciation of "Medford" did not mesh with the rest of her accent. She didn't just drop the "r." The whole second syllable melted away to an unstressed vowel: "Medf'd."
That's an example of the kind of "Bahston accent" much sought after by, say, casting directors recruiting extras for crowd scenes in movies filmed in Boston ("The thickah, the bettah"). But this woman, though she sounded like New England, sounded more, well, suburban than that. Was she putting us on? Had someone told her that's how the locals pronounced it and suggested she do the same?
What if the locals are wrong?
Consider Stoneham, Mass. – not far from Medford, as it happens, and the place where my friend lived for many years. And though she is emphatically not "from" there, she faithfully pronounces it as the locals do, as Stone Ham. People not from there, and people who pronounce it over the public airwaves, pronounce it "Stone 'em."
Stone Ham: It sounds like something the Puritans would have eaten during Lent. No, wait, Puritans didn't observe Lent. Actually, Wikipedia reports, "The earliest mention of Stoneham by European settlers was in the year 1632 when Governor Winthrop" – that would be John Winthrop, the first colonial governor of Massachusetts – "and his party came upon this area to picnic. They found Spot Pond and ate their lunch on Cheese Rock, now known as Bear Hill."
Picnicking Puritans: Now that's an idea. If ants had shown up, the Puritans would probably have admired their work ethic and urged their children to emulate them.
But I digress. Ham often shows up in place names in the English-speaking world as an element meaning village, as in the word hamlet. It often disappears (as in the "stone 'em" pronunciation), but not always.
So the person of goodwill trying to get it right has to decide which to do. The big question here is this: In a world of mobility and national homogenization, whose pronunciation gets to count as the "correct" one? To put it another way: Are "the correct pronunciation" and "the way the locals say it" the same thing?
It seems to me to make sense to pronounce a word in a way that fits one's own accent. Take Worcester, for example. It's been compacted over time into two syllables, and that first "r" is gone, gone, gone. One of the "How to Pronounce Massachusetts Town Names" websites I've checked says it should be pronounced "Wuss-ter." (That's "u" as in push.) A reader has commented, no, it's "Wuss-tah!"
Well, yes and no, and this may be a good example of the distinction between pronunciation and accent. There are legions who do say "Wuss-tah," and far be it from me to quibble with their authenticity. And Worcester in three syllables or with that first "r" pronounced is flat wrong.
But when someone who normally pronounces a final "r" drops it, it sounds like a joke – or a mistake. That's why my friend and I reacted to Ms. Medford the way we did. There's a Shakespearean principle that applies here: "To thine own self be true."