New Orleans English

English is also the native language of most New Orleanians today. Some claim that up to five dialects are or have been spoken in the city — and some residents even claim they can tell where someone comes from down to the street — but the exact boundaries of variation have never been empirically established; there is much work still to be done on New Orleans English. Still, at the very least, linguists generally accept that there is an an upper-class dialect (usually referred to as the Garden District accent), a working class white dialect (known colloquially as Yat and often likened to Brooklynese), and a working class black dialect. Whether a separate Creole dialect exists today or existed in the past is undetermined. Similarly, some have suggested that the distinction between Yat and the working class black dialect is not linguistic but rather the phenotype of the speaker; this also has not been empirically confirmed. Many people in New Orleans today, particularly those who have had many years of education, speak a dialect that differs little from the standard American English spoken in the north of the country.

New Orleans’ rich linguistic history is evident in the particularities of its dialects. Many features are shared (or were shared) across communities: classically, the expression “Where y’at?” (the correct response to which is, of course, “Fine”) gave the Yat dialect its name and can still be heard today among African American residents of the city. Other classic New Orleans expressions include the use of neutral ground for a large grassy median in a road and wrench your dishes in the zink. New Orleans English is marked by contact with the other languages that have occupied the city historically. Possible German influence exists in the use of by in the expression “by my mama’s”, as noted in Chapter 5. The importance of French is perhaps the most notable, having left many words (e.g. banquette “sidewalk,” parrain “godfather”, beaucoup “a lot, very”) and expressions (make groceries “to go grocery shopping,” pass the mop).

New Orleans English has become a source of pride for locals; the commodification of the language’s particularities on t-shirts and bumper stickers attests to the importance of language in asserting authenticity and identity.