Being an Air Force veteran that has settled in a town far from home, I often get asked where I’m from. “New Orleans” I tell people, and almost invariably, their response is something along the lines of “You don’t sound like you’re from New Orleans.” Years ago this would puzzle me, but I’ve gradually grown accustomed to the fact that by and large a majority of people from outside of southern Louisiana are under the impression that the predominant dialect of New Orleans and the surrounding area is something akin to a grossly exaggerated Scarlett O Hara drawl. I guess they can hardly be blamed. Movies that are set in New Orleans often have characters talking with very pronounced southern accents: Dennis Quaid in Big Easy, Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and Gena Rowlands in The Skeleton Key, with the latter being notable in that her character not only speaks with a distinct Southern drawl, but also calls attention to Kate Hudson’s character’s accent. This often elicits a laugh from locals as nothing about Kate Hudson’s accent would seem particularly remarkable to a native of New Orleans, and in fact her accent is less of an oddity than the accent of the character calling attention to it.
There is a short passage in the opening of John Kennedy Toole’s seminal novel A Confederacy of Dunces which attempts to describe the New Orleans accent. It describes the accent as hard to distinguish from the accents of Hoboken, Astoria, Jersey City, and Manhattan. It implies that the accent originates from German and Irish immigrants and that this accounts for the seeming similarities between the dialects and inflections in the two seemingly disparate areas. Indeed, one of the first reactions people have when my accent creeps into the edges of a conversation is that I “sound like I’m from Brooklyn” and the similarities in the dialects are undeniable. The way in which he weaves the local dialect into the dialogue is a large part of the charm of Toole’s novel, as the New Orleans dialect has a bit of an exaggerated quality that lends itself well to comedy, much the way a stereotypical New York accent can be used to great comedic effect.
New Orleanians have a particular self awareness about the oddity of our accent and dialect, and much of our local comedy and writing reflects a sort of self referential amusement with how somewhat out of place our way of speaking is in the Deep South. Local musicians Benny Grunch and the Bunch have made a cottage industry out of songs about local events and culture, all sung in a comically overblown New Orleans accent. One of their most popular songs “Ain’t Dere No More” is a lament about the huge number of local business that have gone away and been replaced by larger corporate entities. Post-Katrina the expression “Ain’t dere no more.” has taken on an even broader meaning in New Orleans culture, and a popular routine is to replace many of the locations in the original song with seemingly mundane locations particular to the person singing that in fact “ain’t dere no more.”
There are many expressions in New Orleans that are so particular to the city that outsiders are often hard pressed to understand what they mean without context. The strip of grass that separates the two lanes of a highway, typically called the median elsewhere in the country, is universally referred to as the “neutral ground”, with median being virtually unheard of. This is owing to the fact that earlier in the city’s history, the median was a place where the various disparate social groups would meet, conduct business, and socialize, while still maintaining the cultural borders that even to this day still define the various areas of the city. Elsewhere in the country, people often drink soda, but in New Orleans the word soda is unheard of, to the point that as a child I thought it was an archaic expression. When I finally left the city for the first time after high school, I was initially amused to hear people refer to soft drinks as sodas, and even to this day friends and family members chuckle when I use the word soda, as if I had said something quaint. Likewise, a brown paper bag in the greater New Orleans area is almost universally referred to as a Schwegmann’s bag, after a local grocery store chain. This is in spite of the fact that the Schwegmann family got out of the grocery business in 1996 after over a century, and in fact is one of the businesses that features prominently in the song “Ain’t Dere No More”. Speaking of families, in New Orleans, when asking about another individual’s family, they are typically referred to collectively as “your mom an dem”, an expression that always seems to elicit an amused reaction from people unfamiliar with the dialect. In fact, the dialect itself takes its name from a common local expression. The dialect (and the people who speak it) are collectively referred to as “Yats” after the common expression “Where yat?” which can variously be used as a salutation or to genuinely inquire about another individuals whereabouts.
In the years since I have left home, my accent and dialect have become a bit homogenized from extended contact with a much wider array of accents and dialects than I would typically encounter back home. When I joined the Air Force, I was infinitely amused at the array of accents and dialects that I encountered in basic and beyond as I had always been fascinated by speech and language as a child, but had little actual contact with anyone from outside the New Orleans metro area. Until that time, it had never occurred to me that I myself spoke in a distinctive “yat” and that it was a bit of a source of amusement for others how prominent my open mid-backed rounded vowels were. This was in spite of the fact that, even as a child, my parents always emphasized “speaking properly” and had encouraged me to be more articulate. This in turn was due to the fact that in New Orleans, despite the fact that the dialect is ubiquitous, a more stressed “yat” is considered to be something of a class indicator and suppression of it to a more “normalized” pronunciation is considered to be more proper. As a result, I had always taken a bit of pride in having a slightly more “posh” accent than many of the people I went to school with and likewise, in the intervening years it has become a source of gentle ribbing that my diminished accent and use of “foreign” words like soda and median is something of an indicator of how long I’ve been away from home. The oddity of all of this is that when I’m talking to my family or any local people originally from New Orleans (and there are more than a few here in Warrensburg) I find myself not entirely subconsciously affecting a more pronounced “yat” as a way of showing solidarity. Especially in light of the hurricane being a huge reason why so many of us are displaced from our home, the affectation is, in a sense, an attempt to preserve our culture in a place where many of our colloquialisms must seem as alien to others as British English.
Therein lies the grand paradox of the typical New Orleans dialect. It is such a strong and specific indicator of our strangely isolated culture and yet even among native speakers, there are degrees of distinction that are all but indiscernible to the average listener. The difference between someone from Uptown and someone from the Ninth Ward and someone like myself from “Da Parish” is lost on anyone unfamiliar with those districts and yet it is a prominent enough part of our cultural identity to be a point of contention, even among friends and family members. Having been away from home for over a third of my life at this point gives me a bit more of a broad perspective. It’s notable that my parents bristle (mostly jokingly) when I suggest that their accent is stronger than I remember it being as a child. Likewise, many of my friends that I went to school will alternate between mock derision at my “mid-westernized” accent and amusement at what they consider my forced affectation of a dialect that I never fully embraced when I was legitimately a local. For me, it’s an interesting glimpse at how something as simple as a regional dialect plays into your identity and people’s perception of you.