Archive for August 31st, 2011

I went on down to de Audubon Zoo
An’ dey all axt fuh you;
Dey all axt fuh you, (fuh who?)
Well dey even inquired aboutcha

I went on down to de Audubon Zoo
An’ dey all axt fuh you
Da monkeys axt, da tiguhs axt
An’ da elephant axt me too.
  –  The Meters

I went on down to New Orleans the first week of this month, and while I didn’t have time to get to the Audubon Zoo this trip, I did manage to make it to a few of my old haunts (such as Harbor Seafood, Mona’s and Danny & Clyde’s, all described in my column of one year ago today).  I also managed to get down to the French Market to buy a few new dresses (including one that looks a lot like the picture in my June 6th column), but spent most of the time visiting friends (including Denise, whom I honestly think gets more beautiful every time I see her).  And as usual, I did a lot of talking to complete strangers, including the attendant who tended the breakfast setup on the concierge floor of my hotel.  And though the local accents were familiar to me, I could hear them all the more clearly for having been away for some time and I thought y’all might be interested in hearing a little about them.

Probably the best introduction to the accents, dialects and distinctive speech patterns of New Orleans and its environs is Yeah You Rite!, a 1985 documentary by Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker.  It incorporated their earlier “A New Orleans Lexicon”, a short which I saw dozens of times as filler on WYES-TV (New Orleans’ PBS station) when I was in high school and university (my epigram comes from the song featured in the film).  Incidentally, George Reinecke, the scholar featured in that film, taught my “History of the English Language” course at UNO.  Another clip featured on that linked page, “Multiplicity”, explains and shows examples of the major New Orleans accents; the very first one we hear in the video is an example of the “Yat” dialect, the Brooklynish lower class white patois spoken by the escort I’ve called Linda; it is named for its speakers’ characteristic greeting, “Where y’at?”  My own accent is a fairly general American one, but those with very good ears can detect traces of Uptown (where I was educated) pronunciation and perhaps an occasional Cajun French word such as couillon (silly person) or frisson (goose bumps) besides the more usual New Orleans terms as featured in the video.

One term which is mentioned in the documentary but not really fully explained is lagniappe, a peculiar New Orleans term meaning basically “bonus”,  something extra given by a merchant to good customers; for example, the man from whom I buy my dresses always throws an extra skirt, scarf or shawl of his choosing into my bag (an unusually generous lagniappe, to be sure).  The word isn’t French; as Professor Reinecke explained in our class, it’s originally from the Quechua yapay (to add), which is to this day used in much the same way in the Andes.  The Spanish, finding it a useful term, used it in their New World colonies as la ñapa, and when the largely-French inhabitants of New Orleans borrowed it in turn from their Spanish rulers (Spain held New Orleans from 1769-1801), the pronunciation and spelling were Gallicized to lagniappe.

Yeah You Rite! was made in the early ‘80s, long before Hurricane Katrina, and though all those old accents are still prominent I also heard many non-New Orleanian accents on my recent trip:  Vietnamese accents, general Southern accents, and lots of American Standard due partly to the omnipresence of television and partly to the large influx of outsiders who moved in post-Katrina.  Globalization and mass media tend to promote homogenization, and the Katrina disaster sped up the process; in a few more decades the old accents, terms and customs of New Orleans will be nothing but a memory, a parade of ghosts second-lining into history along with the culture which once made the Crescent City unique.

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