“Happy New Year: A Boston Babe’s Story of the Boston Accent that Never really was”

I recall the first time I was told that I had a Boston accent. It was my first day as a Freshman at Boston University. I was surrounded by students who came from outside of Massachusetts, and from our local perspective, they over baked their r’s when they spoke and sounded like were stressing out their vocal chords.

 I couldn’t engage in a simple, “Hello, my name is Karen” conversation without an interruption from someone commenting how thick my accent was.  It got wicked annoying and it made no sense.  I can’t tell you how many times I was asked to say, “Park the car, in the Harvard yard” so they could laugh at me. I was born here, grew up here and went to school here, so how is it that I have an accent? If you go to France, do they tell the people that live there that they have a “French accent”?

One guy once told me, “the Boston accent makes “your people” sound ignorant, stupid and uncultured.” Hmmm, Boston, the melting pot of the planet and we are the uncultured ones? Boston, home of the finest educational institutions and innovations in the world, and we are stupid? Funny, that same guy flunked out, sophomore year, while my “people”  and I all graduated. Somewhere along the way, someone should have told him that we Boston types also make good team players and forge life long friendships. And guess what, we aren’t still living home off our parents.

I endured this ridicule until I graduated from my undergraduate program and got less of it when I went to work for Industry. In graduate school, at Northeastern University, again, this wonderful university is also in Boston, most of my peers were from the Middle East, China or Greece. These international students would ask me to give tutorials and explain concepts to them because they could understand my English, while they struggled with the non-local English speakers. Even today on teleconferences, my colleagues from around the world ask me to repeat what the last speaker on the call said, because they just can’t understand the speaker’s English. So, to the international population, the Boston accent is very cool and clear.

Then I became a Professor. Here, I felt that in a community of open, brilliant people, no one would look down upon me or dare to make stupid comments about my English. I was wrong.

At the very first new faculty gathering I attended, I was engaged in a conversation with a very nice individual. While I was discussing my research and my industrial experience, a woman interrupted our conversation from the sidelines.

She turned to me and said, “You know, you can take courses to fix that”.

I replied, “Fix what?”

She said, “Your horrible Boston accent.”

I remember wanting to respond with, “And you can fix that nasty mustache of yours with some waxing.”

Instead, I said, “You are in my town and here, YOU have the accent. To try to “fix” myself to make myself acceptable to others would make me feel fake and that’s not happening just to make other people happy.” The woman huffed away and fortunately, she didn’t last long at the university.

Let’s now point out that possessing a Ph.d., does not make any individual anymore classy, kind, or possess more common sense than any other human being.

On another occasion, I overheard students asking who was teaching the required digital logic electronics course, and a student responded, “The woman professor with the accent.” I found this interesting, since I was the only woman in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, which was a single department a thousand years ago when I first arrived. So, here, my accent became part of my identity and my students think it’s awesome. My students rock!

I travel around the world and laugh when someone mistakes me from someone from New York. I also possess the worst knowledge of sports on the planet, so if someone mentions New York/Boston team rivalries, I’m pretty much clueless. I honestly just choose teams based on the colors or their uniforms. For instance, I like the teams that have the purple uniforms, but I couldn’t tell you their team name or where they are from.  I know that’s totally un-Boston and Un-NYC like, but I am being honest here.

Alas, I digressed. Let’s get back to the coolness of my Boston Accent. It makes me who I am, and if at any time anyone was naïve enough to think I was stupid because of the locality of my speech, well, they end up scratching their butts in confusion. I think for some of these people, their brains actually reside down there.

So, why am I telling you all this? Because being yourself and not assimilating to be what everyone else says you should be, when you know inside yourself what makes you you, is what makes you special.  It empowers you to stretch beyond, where others try to place barriers and limits. Never apologize for who you are and be proud of yourself.

I don’t talk like everyone else. I don’t think like anyone else and I certainly don’t dress like everyone else. I don’t fit in any box and I think that’s wicked awesome!

And today, when someone asks me to say the outdated, “park the car in the Harvard yard” bit, I respond with, “You know, you can’t actually park in Harvard yard, but if you do successfully find parking in Cambridge, you will need to put a “another quarter in the parking meter.”

Here’s to celebrating you!

Happy New Year,

Dr. Karen Panetta