If you’ve been listening to coverage of Katrina’s devastation on the radio, you’ve no doubt heard the distinctive New Orleans accents of victims, officials, and rescue workers alike. Some of them speak with a familiar, Southern drawl; others sound almost like they’re from Brooklyn. Why do people in New Orleans talk that way?
New Orleans has long been one of the most diverse cities in the country, and it has a correspondingly rich level of linguistic diversity. Founded by the French in the early 18th century, the city was ruled by Spain from 1763 to 1803; in the 1760s, the Acadians, or Cajuns, arrived from Canada speaking a variety of French quite unlike Parisian French. In 1803, English-speaking settlers began to arrive in significant numbers, and throughout the 19th century the city saw heavy immigration from Germany, Ireland, and Italy. As the major port city in the South, New Orleans was also a gateway for the slave states, which brought in speakers of a variety of African languages. The slave trade also brought New Orleanians into contact with speakers of Plantation Southern English from the East Coast. And Midland English reached the city through river traffic headed down the Ohio and into the Mississippi River.
The language of New Orleans reflects this hodgepodge. There is substantial borrowing from French in banquette for “sidewalk” (now old-fashioned) and gallery for “porch,” not to mention a large number of food terms including beignet, étouffée, jambalaya, praline, and filé. French-derived idioms include make the groceries for “to buy groceries; to shop for food” and make ménage for “to clean the house,” both from the French faire; for, meaning “at (a specified time)” (“the parade’s for 7:00”), is from French pour. A lagniappe, “a small gratuity or gift; an extra” is from Louisiana French but borrowed from Spanish, which itself took it from Quechua, an Indian language of South America. Similarly, bayou is from French but ultimately from Choctaw, and pirogue, a dug-out canoe or open boat used in the bayous, went from the Caribbean-Indian language Carib to Spanish to French to English. Gumbo is from French but ultimately from a West African language. New Orleanians also use many Northernisms, including chiggers for the biting mites that nearby Southerners usually call red bugs, and wishbone for the chicken part more usually known as the pully-bone in the South.
Despite the intrinsic interest of New Orleans speech, the city has not been extensively studied by professional linguists. Locals, however, are self-conscious about the language and take a fierce pride in it, making careful distinctions about the speeches of different neighborhoods and ethnic groups. (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is regarded as particularly accurate.) One of the better-known varieties is spoken by the “Yats,” lower- and middle-class white New Orleanians. (The name derives from “Where y’at?” a local greeting.) The Yats have a strong Irish heritage, and several features of their speech recall stereotypical Brooklynese—”dese,” “dem,” “doze” for “these,” “them,” “those”; “berl,” “earl,” and “ersters” for “boil,” “oil,” and “oysters”; and “mudder” for “mother.”
Uptown whites, and blacks, use different pronunciations. Some of these are characteristically Southern, such as the diphthongization of vowels in all and task (sounding something like “owl” and “tyask,” respectively). But in other cases, New Orleans English does not reflect usual Southern forms—it retains the “i” diphthong in words like hide and my (usually pronounced “hahd” and “mah” in the South), and maintains a distinction between the vowels in pen and pin or ten and tin (usually pronounced like the second item in each pair). There are also a number of unusual pronunciations with unclear origins, including the first-syllable stress on adult, cement, insurance, and umbrella, and the fact that when you rinse your hands, you “wrench” them in the “zink.”
Explainer thanks Bill Kretzschmar of the Linguistic Atlas of America, native New Orleanian Connie Eble of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Joan Hall of the Dictionary of American Regional English.