Today, in cars laden with minifridges and movie posters, the Harvard class of 2019 moves into the freshman dormitories on Harvard Yard. It’s a special moment in the Boston area. After all, it marks one of the few instances when someone with a Boston accent might actually instruct people to — wait for it — “pahk the cah on Hahvahd Yahd.”
Apart from this occasion, car access to the yard is limited to nonexistent. “We are very strict as far as who we allow in,” says Maureen A. McCarthy, manager of Harvard Yard and freshman dormitories. “We have a lot of pedestrians and tourists so for safety concerns and just appearance, too, we limit vehicles.”
Even the cars carrying new freshmen onto campus have just 20 minutes to unload before moving on. “They’re not parked here all day while they go to lunch,” McCarthy says. “We keep a close eye on that.”
Therein lies the paradox: 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 is not a new state of affairs. As far back as the 1950s, the request had already become so tired as to be considered a grating cliché. “It’s rather unfair to subject Bostonians alone to this merciless phonetic inquisition,” a Boston Herald columnist ranted in 1960. “Suppose we were to adopt the same tactics with local tourists?’”
A half-century of grumbling about it raises the question: Where did “Pahk the cah on Hahvahd Yahd” come from?
Written sources suggest that it arose as a sibling of similar phrases that highlighted how different regions pronounced their “ah” vowels as well as their “r”s. Phrases like “park the car behind the barn” worked specifically because they brought out those differences. “Eastern New Englanders might ‘pack the ca behind the ban,” the Globe reported in 1953. “New Yorkers ‘pahk the cah behind the bahn,’ while in Baltimore, of all things, you ‘pork the cor behind the born.’ ”
Somewhere along the way, though, “Harvard Yard” replaced the generic “barn” as the spot where speakers suggested one might leave a car. Rather than serve the entire Eastern Seaboard, the litmus test became a Boston-specific one.
Linguist and journalist Ben Zimmer has taken to collecting early examples of the “Harvard Yard” version of the phrase. Though he hasn’t found a patient zero, he’s seen it written down as early as 1946 when it was already being referred to as the “Famous Harvard Accent Test.”
Harvard, it turns out, once had its own dialect, distinct from the Boston accent, as we know it. 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 was a sort of ritzy, trans-Atlantic speech that made the speaker sound vaguely British. (Think Franklin Roosevelt or Katharine Hepburn.)
The “Harvard Accent Test,” then, seems to have existed as a distinctive campus twist on the various phrases. It became a sort of shibboleth from within the Harvard community itself to determine whether students had yet adopted the affectation that would mark them as having been educated at “Hahvahd.”
How it 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. “This accent of Kennedy’s is described as a Harvard accent,” Kurt Vonnegut noted in a 1974 interview. “It isn’t at all; it’s an Irish, middle-class, Boston accent, which was charming too. People loved to hear him talk.”
Harvard’s tendency to distribute its alumni around the country after they spent time in Greater Boston might also explain why it is mostly people outside the area who associate the phrase with its residents, while anyone who has ever fought to find a meter in Cambridge (or worse, paid garage prices) is left scratching her head.
But the next time some Floridian smirkingly asks a Boston resident to parrot back the phrase, perhaps she can cease scratching and instead blame Harvard for her woes.
Eric Randall is a Los Angeles-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @ericnrandall. Britt Peterson is on vacation this week.
Listen: Eric Randall discusses the phrase with ‘All Things Considered’