There is a certain New Orleans city accent... associated with downtown New Orleans, particularly with the German and Irish Third Ward, that is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, New Jersey, and Astoria, Long Island, where the Al Smith inflection, extinct in Manhattan, has taken refuge. The reason, as you might expect, is that the same stocks that brought the accent to Manhattan imposed it on New Orleans --John Kennedy O'Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

I'm very sick of people commenting on my 'lack of a Southern accent. That's probably cause I'm from New Orleans, and if they knew any more than what they see on In the Heat of the Night or The Big Easy, they would know that New Orleans has a dialect completely of its own. In fact, there are three main dialects: rich white, poor white, and black. The two closest and overlapping are the black and poor white dialects. They are also the most interesting, and I have the most first-hand experience with them.

I speak a slight version of the poor white, but my parents are as Yat (A Yat is a speaker of this dialect, and the word comes from the phrase 'Where Y'at?' meaning 'how's it going?') as can be. The dialect of New Orleans has jack to do with the rest of the South. The dialect is often compared to ones of New York and New Jersey, as well as some Caribbean variants. This is due to the same types of immigrant groups (Irish, Italian, German) as well as a large influx of Africans, many of whom were freed slaves long before the Emancipation Proclamation. The only feature it really shares with the Deep South accents is the drawl with which it is spoken, but that's probably due more to climate and attitudes than actual linguistic influence. My examples of the dialect will come from, generally speaking, the poor white and black dialects, as well as all things in-between. My approach will be less specific than some of my other write-ups, partly because there's less scientific information. I will use /ë/ to represent a schwa and /c/ to represent a low back rounded vowel. Capital 'D' represents the alveolar tap or flap.

  • The first aspect I will talk about is good ol' /r/, one of the most variable sounds in English. The basic rule for New Orleans 'r's is that you will not hear it where you expect to, and you will where you expect not to. Basically, the rule is that it is lopped off of words that end in 'r', and added onto words that end in an unstressed vowel. in this way, you get 'platter' /plæDë/, but then you get 'piano' as /pianër/. I actaully heard a guy on the radio during a hurricane a few years ago say 'yeah we got wata up ta da pianer'. Go figure.

  • Another place where /r/ drops is in the middle of a word, such as 'ford', which will get pronounced as /fcwd/, with heavy rounding and labialization on that vowel. You'll often hear older women say 'darling' /dcwlIn/ or 'heart' /hcwt/. This also happens in almost any word with a low back vowel. in a New Orleans dialect, /a/ and /c/ are contrastive phonemes. Many American dialects do not make this distinction, so that 'cot' and 'caught' come out the same /kat/. But in New Orleans, they are /kat/ and /kcwt/, and the difference is very apparent. In 'choich' you might hear 'The Lord said to John' as /da lcwd sεd ta džcwn/. You also hear it in 'walk' and 'talk' as /wcwk/ and /tcwk/. It's a very characteristic vowel sound in New Orleans speech.

  • Yet another r-dropping place is in words like 'shirt' and 'hurt', which are normally /šërt/ and /hërt/. In New Orleans, the /-ër-/ is changed to /-oi-/ often, so we get /šoit/ and /hoit/. Now, the best part of all of this is the same people who make this change also make the change /-oi-/ to /-ër-/. That's right, 'point' will come out /përnt/ 'oil' /ërl/, and my favorite 'toilet' is /tërlët/

  • Another great vowel distinction is the two /æ/s. While most people will pronounce 'bad' and 'bade' both as /bæd/, and 'caddie' and 'catty' both as /kæDi/, New Orleans dialect uses two phonemic vowels. (While most dialects of English have about 11 phonemic vowels, New Orleans has about 13) This other /æ/ is a bit higher, and has a /I/ offglide, so I will represent it as /æI/. So, you were /bæd/, so I /bæId/ you farewell. It's hard to show in print, but if you heard it, you'd understand the difference. These /æ/s are two of the most distinctive sounds in the dialect.

  • Another vowel oddity exists in the words 'room' and 'broom', which are pronounced with the vowel in 'look' and not the one in 'food'. However, 'groom' is pronounced with the latter.

  • A feature that always makes me feel at home is the pronunciation of the plurals of 'taste', 'ghost', 'list' etc. The final /t/ in the word is usually dropped, but since the /t/ is dropped, the plurals, instead of being /te:sts/ et al like in most dialects, will becomes /te:sIz/ and so on, because of the rule in English on how to form plurals when a word ends in a silibant.

  • Oftentimes, you will hear 'sink' pronounced as /zink/ when meaning the kitchen basin, but as /sink/ when you talk about a ship going down. I can't think of any other examples of things like this, but it's fairly common in the dialect.

  • The dental fricatives /ð/ and /θ/ ( in 'the' and in 'thin') are usually simply turned into the stops /d/ and /t/, respectively. When they are in the middle of a word, such as in 'gather', they are still pronounced as fricatives.

  • You'll often hear 'I seen' rather than 'I saw', and sometimes 'I been' instead of 'I was'. 'Y'all' and 'ain't' are also prominent, perhaps because of the city's location in the Deep South. The tendency to drop auxiliary verbs and sometimes the verb 'to be' (especially in the 2nd person) itself is very common. I'll often hear 'where ya been?' or 'you an asshole!'

  • 'by' is an extremely interesting preposition in New Orleans dialect, and it's more like the German bei or Russian u than the traditional English use of 'by'(In fact this might be due to German influence). You can say 'by my house' or 'by John's' and mean 'at my house' or 'at John's'. This is because the common English use of 'by' means roughly 'next to', but in this sense, and in German and Russian it has a meaning more like 'In the area of'. So, you can say 'By Mama's da phone ain't been woikin' and it means the same thing as Russian 'U mamê têlêfon nê rabotajet'. This is how we get to use phrases like 'by my mom an'nems' to mean 'back home'.

  • Another odd preposition is 'for', which is used in expressions of time often in place of 'at' or 'by'. So you get phrases like 'we were home for 8' or 'the parade was for 6'.

  • The possessive 's' is often ubiquitous in the names of stores and the like. 'We went to K-mart's' and 'Dere was a sale on movies at Blockbuster's' can be heard all over the city and the suburbs

  • On top of all this, just remember lots of nasalization and lots of labialization.

And so, I'm sure this isn't everything, but it covers a lot. If any New Orleanians have any more suggestions, feel free to tell me, cause I know I missed a lot. Also, check out the video "Yeah You Rite" by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker. It's an excellent video about dialects in New Orleans, and has some real life examples and not the stupid tourist bullshit that you always get (like, no one really says 'mudbugs' or 'lagniappe''s a gimmick to entice tourists). Also check out my write-up on New Orleans vocabulary, which I'm putting up soon.

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