Like an unfamiliar territory or faraway land, New Orleanians tends to cook, celebrate, and speak in a manner that seems foreign to many Americans. Local colloquialisms and slang terminology dominate the language in New Orleans’ sports and entertainment, neighborhoods and street names, and everyday chitchat. Forget the city’s influential French colonial history, forget the Southern accents poorly depicted in movies and televisions shows, and forget the stereotypical Cajun speakers from southeast Louisiana. The local vernacular of native New Orleanians is the “Yat” dialect, a phrase that stems from a common greeting, “Where y’at?”
The Yat dialect, similar to a Brooklyn-esque accent, stems from generations of immigrant groups through the city’s major port of entry into the United States. Regardless of accent or dialect, though, the pronunciation of the city’s name usually distinguishes habitué from novice. Pronouncing it “New OAR-luhnz” as opposed to “New or-LEENS” is the most locally accepted version of New Orleans, a city named after the Philippe d’Orléans, a duke in France at time of the city’s founding.
With the French influences in La Nouvelle Orléans, signs and maps may appear to resemble the culturally distinguished and greatly European eponyms like ancient Greece and refined regions of France, but New Orleanians have linguistically twisted these delicate terms into a language of its own. Although the street named Burgundy looks like a fine red wine, it is pronounced “ber-GUN-dee,” and although the Grecian muse Calliope may have played an instrument of the same name, the street in Uptown which bares that title is pronounced “CAL-ee-ope.” French words do not always bare the French pronunciation such as “CHAW-tuhs” for Chartres Street, “cah-rahn-doh-LET” for Carondelet Street, and “MET-uh-ree” for the metropolitan area just outside the city, Metairie. However, a certain few namesakes from France have survived tripping over local tongues, like the neighborhood of the French Quarter, Vieux Carré, which is pronounced “voo cah-RAY,” the pie-slice area beside the Quarter called Faubourg Marigny, typically spoken as “FO-berg MA-ruh-knee,” and the saltwater body Lake Pontchartrain simply said as “PONCH-ah-train.”
The sometimes Southern-ized street names, family names, and food names accent on different syllables such as “PRAW-leen” for the sweet candy called pralines, “BEN-yay” for the sugar-coated doughnuts called beignets, and “FEE-lay” for the finely powdered sassafras called filé, a spice to sprinkle over a simmering bowl of gumbo. Even the word “gumbo” can be used in other factors other than food, such as “gumbo ya-ya,” meaning everyone talking at once.
Terminology that has passed through language and cultures continues to pepper the linguistics of locals, such as the term “lagniappe” (LAN-yap) which means giving someone a little something extra, like a gratuity or small bonus. Even the local newspaper Times-Picayune (Pic-ee-yoon) stems from a French word for a small Spanish coin worth six cents, the original price of the daily paper.
The next time a New Orleanian says it’s time for “making groceries,” remember the French phrase for market shopping, faire son marché, its translation for faire (meaning make) transferring into an expression still used to this day. And when the grocer asks if you want your po’boy “dressed,” be prepared for a hearty hoagie sandwich complete with lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise.
From a “parish” instead of a “county,” from the “neutral ground” instead of the “median,” from an “alligator pear” instead of an “avocado,” the people of New Orleans may say it a little strange, but at least it’s something to talk about.