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Park the Car in Harvard Yard: Understanding the Boston accent

Considered one of the more recognizable accents in the United States, the Boston accent traces its origins to early New England settlements and was further influenced through the years by different immigrant groups, like the Irish and Italians.

The distinctive linguistic pattern spoken by people from the city of Boston, its suburbs, and much of eastern Massachusetts has been often imitated in movies and TV shows, often for character development or humor.

The R’s

One identifiable trait of a Boston accent is non-rhoticity, which can be simply described as dropping the final r’s in a word and pronouncing r’s as h’s. For example, the word “car” is pronounced “cah.”

Other examples include “stah” instead of “star” and “fah” instead of “far.” A popular phrase Bostonians are often asked to speak because it emphasizes the Boston accent is “Park the car in Harvard Yard,” which comes out as “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd.” The letter “r” also vanishes after other vowels, where “weird” is pronounced “wee-id.”

If the “r” disappears at the end of words, it reappears in others, particularly when the word ends with the letter “a.” For example: “idea” becomes “idear,” pizza becomes “pizzer,” soda is “soder,” and pasta is “pahster.” The letter “a” is pronounced “ah” when it’s not at the end of a word, like “ahnt” for “aunt” and “bahth” for “bath.”

People with pronounced Boston accents also often speak really fast, and as a consequence, some consonants are also dropped, specifically the d’s and t’s. “Don’t” ends up as “Doan,” while “plenty” becomes “plenny.”

Wicked

If you want to describe something as really, really good, put the adjective “wicked” in front of words. For example, if you think the Boston Red Sox are a good team, say that they are “wicked good.” Often, people will combine “wicked” with “pissa” to signify something great, becoming “wicked pissa,” which is pronounced as “wicked pissah.”

Place names

One of the best ways to fully immerse yourself in Boston English is to understand the local geographical references, as Bostonians have different ways of describing their place names.

Public Garden and Boston Common are always referred as singular, so calling them Public Gardens or Boston Commons will immediately give you away as a tourist. Copley Square is pronounced as “Cop-ley” and not “Cope-ley,” while Tremont is “Treh-mont.” Finally, even though it was once a popular nickname, never refer to Boston as Beantown – most Bostonians don’t like it.

Some bits of Boston slang

Here are some words and phrases unique to Boston:

  • Av – an avenue with a long name; for example, Massachusetts Avenue becomes Mass-av and Commonwealth Avenue becomes Comm-av
  • Barney – a Harvard student
  • Barrel – trash can
  • Bobos – cheap sneakers or boat shoes
  • Bubbler (bubblah) – water fountain
  • Chowdah – chowder, a cream-based soup native to New England containing potato and usually seafood like clams or fish
  • Chowderhead (chowdahead) – stupid person
  • Down Cellar – basement
  • Eastie – East Boston
  • Flurries – light snowfall
  • Frappe – pronounced as “frap”; a milkshake
  • Packie – liquor store
  • Southie – South Boston
  • Spa – neighborhood convenience store or luncheonette
  • The Cape – Cape Cod
  • The Charles – also Chuck Rivah or just “the River,” referring to the Charles River that flows between Boston and Cambridge
  • The Common – Boston Common, the oldest city park in the United States
  • The Irish Riviera – the South Shore coastal suburbs to the southeast of Boston such as Hingham and Weymouth
  • The Pats – the New England Patriots
  • The Pike – the Massachusetts turnpike
  • The Pru – the Prudential Center
  • The T – refers to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), the underground public transportation in Boston
  • Tonic – soda pop, like Coke or Pepsi
  • Triple Eagle – a graduate of Boston College Law School, Boston College, and Boston College High School, all of which have an eagle mascot
  • Wicked – very good or interesting, always used as an adverb and intensifier
  • Wicked pissa – great, awesome, or way cool