New Orleans English is a variety of American English spoken in the city of New Orleans and its metropolitan area. Native English speakers of the region actually speak a number of varieties, including: the variety most recently brought in and spreading since the 20th century among white communities of the South in general (Southern U.S. English); the variety primarily spoken by black residents (African American Vernacular English); the variety spoken by Cajuns in southern Louisiana (Cajun English); the variety traditionally spoken by affluent white residents of the city’s Uptown and Garden District; and the variety traditionally spoken by lower middle- and working-class white residents of Eastern New Orleans, particularly the Ninth Ward (sometimes known, since at least the 1980s, as Yat). However, only the last two varieties are unique to New Orleans and are typically those referred to in the academic research as “New Orleans English.” These two varieties specific to New Orleans likely developed around the turn of the nineteenth century and most noticeably combine speech features commonly associated with both New York City English and, to a lesser extent, Southern U.S. English. The noticeably New York-like characteristics include the NYC short-a split system (so that mad and map, for example, do not have the same vowel), the diphthongizing of /ɔː/ to [ɔə] or [ɔʷ], non-rhoticity, th-stopping (so that, for example, “those” may merge with “doze”), and the recently disappearing coil–curl merger. Noticeably Southern characteristics include the raising of /aʊ/ and possible monophthongization of /aɪ/ (just these features, plus non-rhoticity, often characterize the Uptown accent).
Often, the term “Yat” refers particularly to the New Orleans accents that are “strongest” or most especially reminiscent of a working-class New York City accent, though others use the term as a regional marker, to define the speech heard in certain parts of the city and its inner suburbs. Used in these narrower senses, Yat is simply one of many sub-dialects of New Orleans. The word comes from the common use of the local greeting, “Where y’at?” or “Where are you at (i.e. in life)?”, which is a way of asking, “How are you?”
Port cities like New Orleans and New York City (with regard to the surrounding boroughs) have caused the growth of similar dialects as both cities attracted many European immigrants during the 19th century. The result has yielded similar dialects which combine sounds from Irish, German, Italian, and many other immigrants’ speech which have blended with the local dialect to create a new variant.
Allan A. Metcalf discusses the socioeconomic associations linked with speakers of Yat. He notes that Yats mostly live near the Irish Channel in blue-collar neighborhoods. The dialect’s connotation with the working class, white population encodes the speaker’s identities. Metcalf describes the historical linguistic setting of Louisiana from the Choctaw to the French along with Spanish and English.
The origins of the accent are described in A. J. Liebling’s book The Earl of Louisiana, in a passage that was used as a foreword to A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s well-known posthumously published novel about New Orleans:
“ There is a 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, Jersey City, 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.”
Today, few citizens of German or Irish background occupy the Third Ward, however, the presence of immigrant groups in the city of New Orleans has inevitably lead to the formation of the Yat dialect
Historically, the city of New Orleans has been home to people of French and Spanish heritage, as well as those of African heritage, which led to the creation of the Louisiana Creole language. This city came under U.S. rule in the Louisiana Purchase, and over the course of the 19th century, the city transitioned from speaking French to becoming a non-rhotic English speaking society. Similarly, much of the south has historically spoken non-rhotic English. The city’s geographic isolation has helped lead to the creation of a new local dialect.
A misconception in other parts of the US is that the local dialect of New Orleans is Cajun. The city’s cultural and linguistic traditions are distinct from that of the predominantly rural Acadiana, an area spanning across South Louisiana. While there has been an influx of Cajuns into the city since the oil boom of the later 20th century and while there are some similarities due to shared roots, Cajun culture has had relatively little influence upon Creole culture and thus Yat culture. The confusion of Cajun culture with the Creole culture is largely due to the confusion of these French cultures by the tourism and entertainment industries; sometimes this was done deliberately, as “Cajun” was often discovered to be a potentially lucrative marketing term.
A Yat accent is considered an identity marker of white, metropolitan people who have been raised in the greater New Orleans area. Speakers with a New Orleans accent are typically proud of their accent as it organically stems from the historical mixing of language and culture. As an African-American population has occupied New Orleans prior to 1803 before the presence of many other Western European immigrants, black New Orleanians share more lingual characteristics with the white (predominantly working-class) population than in most other communities in the Southern United States. This distinctive accent has been dying generationally in the city due to white flight of the city, but remains very strong in the suburbs.
The Yat dialect is the most pronounced version of the New Orleans Accent. Natives often speak with varying degrees of the Brooklyn-esque accent, ranging from a slight intonation to what is considered full Yat. As with all dialects, there is variance by local speakers due to geographic and social factors. This results in many different levels of Yat throughout the area, marking distinct differences between higher-income people and lower-income people. Yat tends to differ in strength and intonation from neighborhood to neighborhood. The type, strength, and lexicon of the accent vary from section to section of the New Orleans Metropolitan Area. Longtime residents can often tell what area the other residents are from by their accent.
Speakers of this dialect originated in the Ninth Ward, as well as the Irish Channel and Mid-City. Slighter intonations of the dialect can be heard in some parts of the city, such as Lakeview, the Marigny, the Garden District, and some parts of Gentilly, but mainly in the suburbs. The dialect is present to some degree in all seven parishes that make up the New Orleans metropolitan area, from St. Tammany to Plaquemines. As with many sociolinguistic artifacts, the dialect is usually more distinct among older members of the population. The New Orleans suburban area of Chalmette is known for the strongest Yat accent of the Greater New Orleans area.
Numerous phonological differences occur between words pronounced in the dialect and their standard equivalents, most often in the form a stress-shift toward the front of a word (i.e., ‘insurance’, ‘ambulance’ as [ˈinʃuɻəns], [ˈæmbjəˈlæns]), or in the form of a change in vowel quality. A southern tendency that shifts vowel sounds known as monophthongization has distinctly separated Yat from other port city dialects.
Some of the most distinct features are:
the rounding and lowering in some cases of /a/ and /ɔ/ to [ɔʷ] (i.e., ‘God,’ ‘on,’ ‘talk’, become [ɡɔʷd], [ɔʷn], [tɔʷk])
the loss of rhoticity on syllables ending in /ɻ/ (i.e. ‘heart,’ fire’ become [hɔʷt], [ˈfajə])
the full rhoticization of a syllable-internal /ɔj/ (i.e. ‘toilet,’ becomes [ˈtɝlɪt]). This feature is more typical in men than in women.
the loss of frication in the interdental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ (i.e. ‘the,’ ‘there,’ ‘strength’ become [də], [ˈdæə], [ʃtɻejnt])
the substitution of /ɪn/ or /ən/ (spelled -in, -en) for /ɪŋ/ (spelled -ing)
the split of the historic short-a class into tense [eə] and lax [æ] versions
the coil–curl merger of the phonemes /ɔɪ/ and /ɝ/, creating the diphthong [ɜɪ], before a consonant, in words such as boil, oil, and spoil, although this feature has mostly receded, except St. Bernard Parish
And then there are words which can be pronounced differently, yet according to no particular pattern: ‘sink’ [ˈziŋk], ‘room’ [ˈɻʊm], ‘mayonnaise’ [ˈmejnæz], ‘museum’ [mjuˈzæm], ‘ask’ [ˈæks], just to name a few examples.
New Orleans is pronounced [nəˈwɔʷlɪnz], [nəˈwɔʷlijənz] or with the /ɻ/ still intact. The N’awlins’ [nɔlɪnz] of the tourist industry and the common [nuwɔɻˈliːnz] are not to be heard among natives. Louisiana is pronounced as the standard [luˈwiziænə] or a slightly reduced [ləˈwiziænə], but never as [ˈluziænə].
New Orleans accent in popular conception
The characters “Vic & Nat’ly” by local cartoonist Bunny Matthews are what some might call Yats.
The distinct New Orleans dialect has been depicted in many ways throughout the city and the U.S.
The main character of the cartoon strip Krazy Kat spoke in a slightly exaggerated phonetically-rendered version of early-20th century Yat; friends of the New Orleans-born cartoonist George Herriman recalled that he spoke with many of the same distinctive pronunciations.
Actual New Orleans accents were seldom heard nationally. New Orleanians who attained national prominence in the media often made an effort to tone down or eliminate the most distinctive local pronunciations. Dan Baum’s Nine Lives shares the feelings of Ronald Lewis, a native of the Ninth Ward who is embarrassed by his local dialect when speaking in front of a group of white northerners. After the displacement of Greater New Orleans area residents because of Hurricane Katrina, the United States was introduced to some of the New Orleans yat accents by constant news coverage. Steven Seagal’s show Lawman exposed some Yat accents and dialects to the nation.
Ronnie Virgets, a New Orleans writer, commentator, and journalist, employs New Orleans dialects and accents in his written and spoken works, including the locally produced public radio program, Crescent City. WWNO, the local public radio station, broadcasts the program and provides access to past Crescent City programs on its website.
Seymore D. Fair; his name is a Yat derivative.
The name of the official mascot for the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, held in New Orleans, was derived from the truncated pronunciation of “See More of the Fair,” which results in the pseudo yat speak “Seymore D. Fair.”
A Midwest Cajun restaurant chain based in Indianapolis, Indiana carries the name Yats. Cellphone company Boost Mobile used the phrase “Where Y’At?” in early advertising campaigns.
Who Dat? is a chant commonly tied to the Yat dialect and used in support of the New Orleans Saints football team. The entire chant is “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” Saints fans are collectively called “Who Dat Nation.”
The Yat dialect is seldom heard when New Orleans is depicted in movies and television shows. Traditionally, characters portrayed from New Orleans are heard using a southern or Cajun accent. An example of this is 1986’s The Big Easy, in which Dennis Quaid speaks an exaggerated Cajun/southern derivation. This trend has been challenged, though, in light of post-Katrina New Orleans representation, like HBO’s Treme and Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, both of which feature actual New Orleans locals either speaking in Yat or one of its variations.
About the Yat Map: How to tell us ‘Where y’at?’ and ‘Whatcha call your neighborhood?’
The Yat Map, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune’s neighborhood identity mapping tool, is a centerpiece of NOLA Neighborhoods, an interactive exploration of the places New Orleanians call home.
The Yat Map asks not only the genial, highly localized question “Where y’at?” but also, “Whatcha call your neighborhood?”
Alongside arguments about the merits of red versus brown jambalaya, whose mama makes the most authentic gumbo, and whether newcomers can ever become “real” New Orleanians, squabbles over neighborhood identity persist in local circles. Where does Mid-City begin and end? Has anyone ever heard of Dixon? Should we say “The Marigny,” “Faubourg Marigny,” “The Marigny Triangle,” “New Marigny” or just plain “Marigny”?
The Yat Map will not settle definitively such intractable, convoluted debates. But it does enable all New Orleans area residents to literally put their communities on the map – and in the process, contribute to the creation of a new, crowd-sourced NOLA Neighborhood Map.
Uptown, Downtown, Bucktown. Old Mandeville, Marrero, Chalmette. You know where you are and what you call your community. New Orleans neighborhood boundaries are the most disputed, but the map is not limited to Orleans Parish. Wherever you live in the metro area and whatever you call it, chime in to let us and everyone else know.
and if no one in your hood said “whatcha” then they said “whatchya” and if no one asked you “where y’at”, they asked “where u at”