When my mother first arrived at Harvard in 1972, she brought with her a thick Boston accent—a product of her upbringing in working class Framingham. Only a few weeks into school, she drummed up the courage to ask a question in a packed lecture hall. The professor responded by mockingly mimicking her accent. Humiliated by this degrading experience, she self-consciously introduced the letter “r” into her vernacular.
Such forced linguistic assimilation at Harvard is still commonplace. While there are certainly undergraduates and faculty members from locales such as Medford, where the Boston accent is de rigueur, I have yet to hear the hub’s trademark non-rhoticity on campus. This does not mean that everyone strives to sound like Tom Brokaw.
Certain accents are widespread. Posh Queen’s English of the Eton or Cambridge variety is so familiar as to sound humdrum. Such accents, however, are all linked by a common denominator: a decidedly non-plebian heritage. By contrast, the Boston accent has a distinctly blue-collar identity.
Yet at other universities, the Boston accent is not simply a reflection of one’s upbringing, but a symbol of Boston pride. My next-door neighbor, a current sophomore at Northeastern University, never had a Boston accent growing up. Peculiarly, he affected one during his freshman year in college. According to him, this linguistic metamorphosis was inspired by a desire to prove to his classmates that he is a local.
And this phenomenon is not relegated to University life. Local politicians, from Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to State House Speaker Salvatore F. Dimasi, show solidarity with their electorate by dropping their r’s. Even the effete Kennedy’s, New England’s most famed political clan, are known for their uniquely Boston pronunciations.
By contrast, while Harvard has been a Boston institution since its Puritan beginnings, the local accent has never caught on here. Instead, Harvard has historically embraced the more decadent, waspish ethos of the Boston Brahmin elite. We live in a land of regattas and finals clubs—far more John Forbes Kerry than Will Hunting. If there is an accent that has defined Harvard over the years, it is one of haughty pretension that characterizes the sermons of Reverend Peter J. Gomes.
Boston has long been a metropolis resentful towards outsiders, and it takes little to be deemed foreign by the local establishment. When New England Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft proposed to move his franchise to South Boston, local politicians lashed out at Kraft’s proposal and lampooned him as an ignorant outsider—this despite his being from Brookline. Around the same time, de facto Red Sox chief John L. Harrington proposed to build a new stadium for his team. Although the stadium plans were ultimately shelved, local pols took the Hyde Park native seriously and agreed to shell out $200 million to aid in construction costs.
Why such disparate treatment? Harrington’s working class roots, Irish heritage, and heavy accent make him a consummate insider to whom the establishment is sympathetic. Kraft, on the other hand, grew up sans accent in a chic Boston suburb.
Clearly, it takes little more than a differing manner of elocution to be marginalized as an outsider in Boston. It is no surprise then that the comparatively raffish culture at Harvard—epitomized by its rejection of the Boston accent—would serve to alienate the University from the community in which it has resided in since 1636. Why else would Police Captain and son of South Boston William B. Evans be able to develop a convivial rapport with Boston College officials, who extend him a warm invitation yearly to lecture students on the hazards of alcohol, while endlessly butting heads with the Harvard administration over Allston?
Reacting to Harvard’s plan to bury Soldiers Field Road and build a new pedestrian bridge across the Charles, Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin was quoted in The Boston Globe as making the nonsensical, inflammatory remark, “The University is treating the river like some moat that they own.” Only a politician with deep-seated animosity towards our fair University would openly deride such an ingenious plan to beautify Boston at no taxpayer expense. It should come as little surprise that Galvin sports a thick Boston accent.
Tragically, this is just the sort of irrational opposition Harvard is bound to face as it marches into Allston. As a University, we will need to bridge the town-gown cultural divide if we wish to minimize the number of impediments politicos such as Galvin will surely impose. Banishing the letter “r” from campus is a sure-fire way to start.
Stephen C. Bartenstein ’08 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column usually appears on alternate Mondays.
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