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Verbal Energy

We finally pahk the cah on Hahvahd Yahd

As incoming freshmen move into their dorms, new light is shed on a famous Boston ‘accent test.’

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    Pedestrians walk through Harvard Yard.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman
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I’ve heard it ever since I first came to Boston: a supposed test of a “true” Boston accent. As transcribed from the lips of one who has “passed” (or is it “failed”?) the test, it goes like this: “I pahk my cah on Hahvahd Yahd.” (Spell-checker is not happy with this.)

But doesn’t everyone in Boston know you can’t park there? The “Yard” is a walled-off pedestrian zone, with gates that sometimes close, as at a medieval European university. (I write as a townie often in search of a cross-campus shortcut.)

The Boston Globe, though, has lately shed light on this. Its explanation makes perfect, forehead-slapping, why-didn’t-I-get-this-before? sense: The phrase refers to the time when incoming Harvard students “pahk” their vehicles on, or in, the Yard as they move into their dorm rooms. They have 20 minutes.

Eric Randall, author of the Globe piece, writes: “Harvard Yard is mostly a vehicle-free zone, yet the idea of ‘pahk­ing’ there is intimately associated with the Boston accent. Locals, especially those with strong accents, know well how often outsiders ask to hear the phrase repeated back, unaware that it means nothing to anyone familiar with Cambridge’s parking options.”

This “accent test” has annoyed Bostonians for decades. Linguist Ben Zimmer has found a written reference to the “Famous Harvard Accent Test” from 1946. 

If it was famous then, it obviously goes back even further. Earlier generations of freshmen, though, unburdened by mini-fridges, might have arrived by train and taxi. 

But however far back the “accent test” goes, the dropped r’s draw my own (native Midwestern) ears in two different directions, which I’ll describe as “Katharine Hepburn” and “MBTA train driver.” Hepburn’s dropped r’s were different from those of a certain kind of train driver whose station announcements had me, as a newcomer, scouring the subway map in search of “Ollington” (Arlington) and “Leech-Me-Ah” (Lechmere).

Mr. Randall writes: “Harvard ... once had its own dialect, distinct from the Boston accent.... Like the Boston accent, it was distinguished by the dropping of the ‘r.’ In 1940, an English professor classified it as the result of mixing accents from New England prep schoolers, Greater Boston Irish-Americans, and Midwesterners. The result ... made the speaker sound vaguely British. (Think Franklin Roosevelt or Katharine Hepburn.)”

He continues: “How [the “accent test”] moved from marking the Harvard accent to the Boston accent is less clear. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy’s association with both Harvard and Boston, and his famous accent, appears to have blurred the lines between the two dialects, which may have helped.”

He marshals a quote from author Kurt Vonnegut: “This accent of Kennedy’s is described as a Harvard accent. It isn’t at all; it’s an Irish, middle-class, Boston accent, which was charming too. People loved to hear him talk.”

I’m not sure the question is settled, but this feels like progress. Meanwhile, I’m parking my car at home, and walking. 

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