New Orleans, located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, is one of the United States’ hottest spots for immigration. Throughout its history, the diversity of New Orleans has rivaled that of pretty much any other city on the map.
There are a couple misconceptions to dispel about New Orleans English before diving into its history. First, some people assume that the New Orleans accent is a southern drawl, which it is not. It’s also not the same thing as Cajun English — a separate Louisiana dialect, which we’ll also discuss in this article. Also, while it’s not really a “misconception,” it’s worth noting that the Louisiana dialects have not been as extensively studied as those in New York City, Philadelphia and other cities with major universities. With that in mind, we’ll dive into NOLA.
A History Of Immigration
The first people who lived in the area now known as New Orleans were, of course, Native Americans. And then, as with every single part of the United States, the Europeans came.
The land was first claimed by the French in the late 17th century, and New Orleans, or La Nouvelle Orleans, was founded by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718. It was even the capital of the French colony for a while. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War — fought between Great Britain and the French — the French were forced to give away all of their land in North America. As part of the deal, Spain was given New Orleans, as well as all the other French territories west of the Mississippi.
Spain stayed there for a few decades, but gave the land back to France in 1800, when Napoleon Bonaparte was in power. But then Napoleon turned around and sold the land to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The French and Spanish left a lasting mark, but from that point forward, English became the dominant tongue of the area. And once Louisiana became a part of the United States, it became a popular place for immigration. Throughout the 19th century, people came from Ireland, Germany and Italy, and it was this group that had the biggest impact on New Orleans English.
It’s also important to note that New Orleans was a major site of the American slave trade. Being one of the biggest ports in the south, it saw a huge number of African languages come through. Not only that, but it also attracted plantation owners from all over the country, which added a bunch of other accents to the mix. All of this came together to make New Orleans a melting pot of linguistic diversity.
New Orleans English Today
As the video above demonstrates, New Orleans reflects the mix of dialects that have settled in the city. There are many accent varieties that are affected by location, race, class and a range of other factors. In this section, we’ll focus on the one accent that is classified as New Orleans English, or “Yat.” This name comes from the phrase “Where are you at?” which is shortened to “Where y’at?” Someone who speaks Yat is also called a Yat.
For those who aren’t from Louisiana, it can be somewhat alarming to find that it bears a striking similarity to the working-class New York accent. Yats drop their “r”s, say doze for “those” and rhyme “quarter” and “water.” If you watch the examples above, some people sound like they’re straight out of Brooklyn. How did two parts of the country so far apart end up sounding nearly identical? Well, as alluded to above, it also has to do with the immigrants. Both New York City and New Orleans attracted Germans, the French, Italians and the Irish (with a heavy emphasis on the last two), and just by having these populations in common, they ended up sounding very similar.
While the accent comes from Ireland and Italy primarily, a lot of the slang is from French. Terms like “jambalaya,” “bayou” (originally Choctaw) and “gumbo” (originally West African) all came by way of French. There are also some English phrases that are slightly different because they come from French, so instead of saying “The party’s at noon,” a Yat will say “The party’s for noon.” There’s pretty much a whole dictionary’s worth of phrases and pronunciations that come from any number of different sources.
There is one problem: Yat seems to be fading away. Like with many cities, the influx of people from other parts of the country is causing features to fade as everyone starts to imitate General American. Many Yats also left the area due to white flight, moving to the suburbs outside of the city. Many people moved to a suburb called Chalmette, though even there the accent seems to be losing key features, like the dropping of “r”s. And the people in Chalmette self-identify not as Yats, but as Chalmatians. It seems Yat is in danger of dying off if there isn’t an accent renaissance soon.
What About Cajun English?
One accent that is going through a renaissance is Cajun English. Because people from New Orleans are almost always depicted in the media with either a southern accent or a Cajun accent, tourists come to Louisiana expecting one or the other. While Cajun English was fading like Yat, it’s now being spoken by young people who want to celebrate their heritage, and also by those who want to give visitors an “authentic” experience.
Cajun English is influenced by a few different languages, but is primarily a descendant of one particular pattern of immigration. France settled many parts of North America, and one of their settlements was in Acadia, or modern-day Nova Scotia. The land was eventually ceded to the British, though for a while the French settlers lived there peacefully. When the British demanded loyalty from the Acadians in 1755 and they agreed only reluctantly, a plan for deportation was executed. Many of these people evacuated to New Orleans, which was still a French colony at the time. The Acadians became informally known as the ‘Cadians, which was further informalized to become “Cajuns.”
Louisiana continues to be home to a number of French speakers, and it’s the only place in the United States where French is very widely spoken. There is Cajun French, which is a descendant of the Acadians’ language, as well as Louisiana Creole, which is a language developed for communication between the 17th century French settlers and the enslaved Africans who had been brought to New Orleans. These two are often conflated, but there are cultural and linguistic differences between them. Cajun English is most strongly influenced by Cajun French, but both of these Frenches have influenced the dialect.
So what does Cajun English sound like? The most characteristic feature of the accent, often exaggerated by actors, is that there is no “th” sound; a “th” will be pronounced with a “d” or a “t.” Instead of saying “That’s my father,” it would sound closer to “Dat’s my fahder.” Another phonological feature is that “p”s, “t”s and “k”s aren’t aspirated, so they tend to sound more like “b”s, “d”s and “g”s, respectively. So “Park my car in Toronto” would sound a bit like “Bark my gar in Dorondo.” Not exactly like that, but when it’s spoken quickly the latter phrase doesn’t sound as abnormal as it looks, anyway.
Cajun English also sometimes places stress on the last syllable of words, which mimics the French pronunciation of words. And, on the slang side, Cajun English is filled with French loanwords like “Allons” for “Let’s go” and “Dit mon la verite!” for “Tell me the truth!”
Despite being strongly influenced by French, Cajun English sounds almost nothing like a modern French person’s accent. Over the centuries, Cajun English has become its own thing, and it’s often remarked upon as one of the hardest to understand English dialects. And yet, over the past few years, Cajun English has burrowed itself into the heart of Louisiana culture.