Changing Planet

A Common Misconception about the New Orleans Accent

Jane Sedgebeer, right, tells stories about her youth in the New Orleans Ninth Ward to Young Explorers Grantee Caroline Gerdes, left, in Sedgebeer's New Orleans home. Photo by Robert Giglio

 

I am a couple of weeks into my exploration and I have already captured the stories of several people who have called the New Orleans Ninth Ward home. And, after hearing their voices, I feel compelled to debunk an old New Orleans’ stereotype.

People from New Orleans do not speak with a Southern drawl.

The common dialect in the Ninth Ward and other New Orleans neighborhoods is actually akin to that found in a New York borough.  In New Orleans, we call this a Yat accent, derived from the phrase “Where ya’at?” (If you follow the New Orleans Saints, this may sound familiar, considering the popular cheer, “Who Dat? Who Dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?”)

A few of my subjects mentioned the “Nint’ Ward accent” as a key ingredient to being from the neighborhood.   Former resident Jane Sedgebeer said people outside Louisiana often guess she is from the Big Apple and not the Big Easy.

[audio:http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/files/2012/06/Accent-Clip.mp3|titles=The Nint’ Ward Accent]

Those of you who clicked on her sound bite did not hear a country twang or Cajun French like popular New Orleans films and TV shows would suggest, but something that sounds a little Bronx-esque.

So, why is it that two cities 1300 miles apart have such similar sounds? New Orleans and New York were both large port cities in the mid to end 1800s, with settlers emigrating from the same countries: France, Italy, Germany, Ireland, to name a few. This gumbo of immigrants in both cities created the like dialects.

The Southern tongue does, however, exist in Louisiana. And, so does Cajun. And, even no dialect at all.  Generally speaking, these dialects are divided into different regions throughout the state. Louisianans take pride in their respective regions because there are several identities, traditions and voices specific to the certain areas of the state.

This diversity was the inspiration behind my project studying the contribution of Ninth Ward immigrant culture to New Orleans.

I promise to keep y’all updated about the rest of my adventures and Louisiana musings. And, if you have any questions about “the boot” feel free to email me at yourstorynola@gmail.com.

Caroline Gerdes recently graduated from Louisiana State University where she studied journalism and history (her major and minor, respectively). As a native of the Greater New Orleans Area, she decided to explore her own backyard with help from a Young Explorers Grant.Caroline is currently conducting an oral history project about the New Orleans Ninth Ward. She seeks to record the community’s full history — its immigrant beginnings, the development of jazz, the depression and prohibition, desegregation and hurricanes.Caroline’s exploration is also a personal quest as her father and paternal grandparents grew up in the Ninth Ward. Her blogs reflect an inside look at New Orleans life and culture, especially the edible aspects.
  • Teresa Russell

    I just read your comments likening NOLA accent to New York. Well, you should hear the Conch accent. It too, has a similarity, to my ear, to a New York Accent. And since Key West was a port of call from NY to NOLA, it stands to reason they sound alike.

  • […] in the French Quarter, there were Second Lines to When the Saints Go Marching In, people shouting Who Dat and many costumes playing on the highly anticipated win.  I have a photo somewhere with a man […]

  • David

    The third sentence/second paragraph is a stereotype *itself* (contrary to that aforementioned sentence, New Orleans *does* speak with a Southern drawl, just not a straight-up Southern drawl). Granted, the elements of “Brooklynese” (as the New York City accent is often nicknamed) are there, but even with those, there is still a Southern drawl to the New Orleans accent. Put another way, New Orleanians *do* **SO** speak with a Southern drawl; it’s just mixed in with a New York accent (for reasons mentioned in the above article) and that French/African/Haitian (? [Haitian, that is?])/(older) Deep South hybrid accent, Louisiana French Creole (due to New Orleans’–and Louisiana’s–French roots).

  • David

    The third sentence/second paragraph is a stereotype *itself* (contrary to that aforementioned sentence, New Orleans *does* speak with a Southern drawl, just not a straight-up Southern drawl). Granted, the elements of “Brooklynese” (as the New York City accent is often nicknamed) are there, but even with those, there is still a Southern drawl to the New Orleans accent. Put another way, New Orleanians *do* **SO** speak with a Southern drawl; it’s just mixed in with a New York accent (for reasons mentioned in the above article) and that French/African/Haitian (? [Haitian, that is?])/(older) Deep South hybrid accent, Louisiana French Creole (due to New Orleans’–and Louisiana’s–French roots).

  • David

    Oh–by the way, Caroline, the sound bite linked to this article confirms both what you stated therein (in the article, not the sound bite) (the accent of most New Orleanians resembles a New York City accent) and what I stated in my earlier comment (the former of the two accents also has a Southern drawl to it [and the older, no-R-at-the-end, South Atlantic/Deep South drawl, in particular]).

  • David

    Oh–by the way, Caroline, the sound bite linked to this article confirms both what you stated therein (in the article, not the sound bite) (the accent of most New Orleanians resembles a New York City accent) and what I stated in my earlier comment (the former of the two accents also has a Southern drawl to it [and the older, no-R-at-the-end, South Atlantic/Deep South drawl, in particular]).

  • Mr. Hat

    That “old New Orleans stereotype” has been debunked many times before, perhaps most famously by A.J. Liebling in his book “The Earl of Louisiana.” Yes, it is true that you will hear Brooklynized Diphthongs in the 9th Ward and other areas, including “da Parish” (St. Bernard, that is), but other neighborhoods sound more Southern.

  • Mr. Hat

    That “old New Orleans stereotype” has been debunked many times before, perhaps most famously by A.J. Liebling in his book “The Earl of Louisiana.” Yes, it is true that you will hear Brooklynized Diphthongs in the 9th Ward and other areas, including “da Parish” (St. Bernard, that is), but other neighborhoods sound more Southern.

  • Lindsay

    I On the contrary. I can definitely hear a southern pull in the accent. Though it may not be as thick as tennessee or the carolinas etc. I think there is a HUGE difference between that accent and a new yorkers. I heard it immediately.

  • Lindsay

    I On the contrary. I can definitely hear a southern pull in the accent. Though it may not be as thick as tennessee or the carolinas etc. I think there is a HUGE difference between that accent and a new yorkers. I heard it immediately.

  • Juan Rivera

    To me the YAT accent sounds like a New Yorker who has lived in the South so long that he picked up a very slight southern draw.

  • Juan Rivera

    To me the YAT accent sounds like a New Yorker who has lived in the South so long that he picked up a very slight southern draw.

  • eddie

    the southern vowels are definitely there. i hear similarities but many people dont realize that a lot of these features arent unique to nyc. you can hear features of the nyc dialect in the northeast, the midland, and yes, even the south.

  • eddie

    the southern vowels are definitely there. i hear similarities but many people dont realize that a lot of these features arent unique to nyc. you can hear features of the nyc dialect in the northeast, the midland, and yes, even the south.

  • Richard

    What you’re hearing that sounds southern is not the southern drawl, but rather monophthongization (which, alongside the drawl, is a prominent feature of southern accents).

    A drawl converts a monophthong to a diphthong or triphthong. It would make, for instance, “bet” sound like “bayit”.

    Monophthongization converts a diphthong to a monophthong. It makes “I” (as in “me”, not lowercase L) sound like “Ah”. It happens in New Orleans accents, but it is more restricted than in the rest of the south. For instance, it occurs often in “I” (though vowel duration is much shorter than in the rest of the south), but not in “eye”. The final twist is that it does occur in “eyes” which becomes a homophone to “oz”.

  • Richard

    What you’re hearing that sounds southern is not the southern drawl, but rather monophthongization (which, alongside the drawl, is a prominent feature of southern accents).

    A drawl converts a monophthong to a diphthong or triphthong. It would make, for instance, “bet” sound like “bayit”.

    Monophthongization converts a diphthong to a monophthong. It makes “I” (as in “me”, not lowercase L) sound like “Ah”. It happens in New Orleans accents, but it is more restricted than in the rest of the south. For instance, it occurs often in “I” (though vowel duration is much shorter than in the rest of the south), but not in “eye”. The final twist is that it does occur in “eyes” which becomes a homophone to “oz”.

  • Nicole S

    In New York, they “Pahk tha cah in tha yahd”.
    In New Orleans, we “Pawk da caw in da yawd”.
    (Park the car in the yard.)

  • Nicole S

    In New York, they “Pahk tha cah in tha yahd”.
    In New Orleans, we “Pawk da caw in da yawd”.
    (Park the car in the yard.)

  • Angie

    The currently accepted historical reason New York and New Orleans sound so much alike, is attributed to settlers purchasing their passage tickets westbound. The European seller (of above stated ticket) would give the buyer an option of New York or New Orleans (New Orleans being only bit more expensive, and only adding 2 days journey). Unbeknownst to the buyer, it was more like a months journey. After arrival, the Civil War began which originated the idea/phrase “brothers fighting brothers, cousins fighting cousins.” This is all due the travel option picked by the buyer. After the centuries went on and the war over, the settler’s European accents mixed with the Creole French accents that were already deeply emplanted into New Orleans culture. New Orleans has it’s own flair on the accents brought over by the same settlers… So should we have New Orleans boroughs?

  • Angie

    The currently accepted historical reason New York and New Orleans sound so much alike, is attributed to settlers purchasing their passage tickets westbound. The European seller (of above stated ticket) would give the buyer an option of New York or New Orleans (New Orleans being only bit more expensive, and only adding 2 days journey). Unbeknownst to the buyer, it was more like a months journey. After arrival, the Civil War began which originated the idea/phrase “brothers fighting brothers, cousins fighting cousins.” This is all due the travel option picked by the buyer. After the centuries went on and the war over, the settler’s European accents mixed with the Creole French accents that were already deeply emplanted into New Orleans culture. New Orleans has it’s own flair on the accents brought over by the same settlers… So should we have New Orleans boroughs?

  • Pat Wittorf

    When I first moved to the New Orleans area back in 1973 the first friend I made was a lady named “Edna” whose accent sounded exactly (to me at least) like Edith Bunker from the popular TV Show. I even caught myself calling her or referring to her as “Edith” rather than “Edna”. Her reaction? “Oh, that’s all right, even my sister does that since that show started.”

    I have been fascinated by that similarity ever since and read once that it might partially be explained by the fact that the borrough in NYC and that area of New Orleans were both founded by the same ethnic groups so that English similarly morphed because of that.

  • Pat Wittorf

    When I first moved to the New Orleans area back in 1973 the first friend I made was a lady named “Edna” whose accent sounded exactly (to me at least) like Edith Bunker from the popular TV Show. I even caught myself calling her or referring to her as “Edith” rather than “Edna”. Her reaction? “Oh, that’s all right, even my sister does that since that show started.”

    I have been fascinated by that similarity ever since and read once that it might partially be explained by the fact that the borrough in NYC and that area of New Orleans were both founded by the same ethnic groups so that English similarly morphed because of that.

  • Joe

    I am frequently told that I sound like I am from New Jersey or NYC, and I have the “New Orleans accent”

  • Joe

    I am frequently told that I sound like I am from New Jersey or NYC, and I have the “New Orleans accent”

  • Linda Pecquet Hurstell

    I lived in the lower ninth Ward of New Orleans in Jackson Barracks until I married Mac, a GE nuclear field engineer.. The day after our wedding, we flew to Schenectady, New York. During our 42 years of marriage, we moved 20 times. We lived in six states during my first pregnancy.
    When we lived in upstate New York, the locals thought I was from New York until I said “y’all” instead of “yous guys”.
    I now teach English as a Second Language in Mississippi and was concerned about my
    New Orleans accent. I asked a pronunciation specialist who trains ESL teachers about it and she said that I was to be proud of my accent. it
    was called a regional dialectical variation and my students had to get used to it because that’s what they hear when they live In the south. I tend to slip away from my really strong accent until I talk to one of my Louisiana relatives after which I slip right back into the “Lower Nint Ward” accent.
    I love my hometown!

    back into it I love my city

  • Joan

    Angie, northside, no boroughs here. We have wards. Also no counties we have parishes .

  • Tina landwehr

    I have had people tell me it was a Chalmette accent although I knew it was New Orleans. Specifically the Irish Channel are where my parents and Grandparents were from. They said it was because of the Ursuline Nuns that came from NY/NJ.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media