Changing Planet

It’s All French to Me: The Woes of Matching New Orleans Maps to Spoken Directions

St. Peter Street (Rue Saint Pierre) in the French Quarter. Photo by Robert Giglio


If you’re lost in the New Orleans Ninth Ward, asking for directions may not be helpful.  Locals have some interesting pronunciations for the street names.

In actuality, Ninth Warders’ intonations are more correct than visitors’.  As a community founded by majority French and German immigrants, the French street names have kept their original pronunciations.

The uncultured tongue (like my own) may mispronounce Reynes Street as Rains. Though it is pronounced like the name Renee. The same can be said for Marais, like Mur-ray, and Mazant, like maze-ant.

While the French pronounce Chartres something like shyr-tre, New Orleanians forgo the harsh “r” sounds and just rearrange the letters, referring to it as Charters.  And, in the Ninth Ward, Burgundy is not a color, but a street pronounced like Burr (as in Aaron) – Gun – Dee.

You can hear some of  these French Street names in the audio clip below from three of my Ninth Ward oral history interviews.  Listen for Ninth Ward streets, Chartres, Mazant and Burgundy.

Ninth Ward Streets

But in a French city, Greek names are a little hard to say. Though, not in the Ninth Ward, the New Orleans pronunciations of streets named for Hellenic muses are amusing.  For example, Melpomene, Mel-palm-a-knee, is called Mel-po-mean in the Crescent City. Terpsichore, Terp-sick-or-y, is similarly pronounced Terp-si-core.

Don’t even get me started on Tchoupitoulas. Completely throw the word street out when you are in the French Quarter — rue, the French word for street, is used instead. And, instructing an out-of-towner that Tulane Avenue is a four-lane road sounds like history’s worst rendition of Who’s on First.

As French inflection varies throughout the city and American Indian street names run perpendicular, there is one thing New Orleans’ gumbo of people can agree on …

It’s New Orleans (Or-lense) not New Orleans (Or-leans).

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.

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