New Orleans accent is rarely portrayed well

Caleb Beck

New Orleanians do not speak with a stereotypical southern drawl. This is a common misconception that might just draw the ire of local natives. However, this is a characteristic that is continually played up in shows and movies set in New Orleans.

New Orleans is a city that undeniably pays tribute to the diverse ethnic roots and cross-cultural heritages it was founded on, from the Franco-Spanish Creole architecture of the French Quarter to the Afro-Carribean voodoo culture that originated from the plantation slave trade. Similarly mottled and unique are the distinctive accents heard in the language of the Ninth Ward and other New Orleans neighborhoods.

Mark Fernandez, a New Orleans local and professor of American Folk Culture and Southern History at Loyola, weighed in on how these accents represent the ethnic background of the locales they are heard in.

“There are actually about seven distinct New Orleans accents. They generally relate to various neighborhoods and sections of the city. A person from the Garden District may surely have a ‘New Orleans accent,’ so might their neighbor from the nearby Irish Channel or across town from the Seventh Ward. They are all distinctively ‘New Orleans’, but not quite the same. Basically, they reflect a variety of influences, such as ethnicity and class,” Fernandez said.

The strongest of these dialects, the “yat” accent (derived from the phrase “where y’at?”), more closely resembles the speech of a working-class Brooklyn accent than the country twang of a closer state like Mississippi. Certain words and phrases found in the yat intonation carry a similar inflection to those heard in Brooklyn such as: “dese,” “dem,” “doze” for “these,” “them,” “those”; “berl,” “earl,” and “ersters” for “boil,” “oil,” and “oysters”; and “mudder” for “mother.”

Meg Harvey, Tulane linguistics studies student, explained how these two locations’ speech patterns contain many similar elements, even while separated by thousands of miles.

“When European settlers came westward to America, they had the option of purchasing either a New York or New Orleans ticket from the seller. The settlers were from the same countries, namely France, Germany, Ireland and Italy. Their European accents mixed with the preexisting accents in the area, giving New Orleans and New York a similar inflection.”

The genuine yat accent is rarely heard when New Orleans is depicted in television and movies; instead, an exaggerated, Cajun-Southern accent is employed. In both HBO’s “Treme” series and Werner Herzog’s “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” local actors are used to give the characters a more authentic feel. The characters speak in yat and some of its variations.

Fernandez offered his opinion as to why Hollywood embellishes the New Orleans accent so dramatically, giving a skewed depiction of the culture to American audiences.

“Hollywood doesn’t care about authenticity, it cares about perception. If you look at films like ‘The Big Easy’, they often have characters with Cajun names like Remy and sporting fake Cajun accents. How often do you hear a Cajun accent in New Orleans? It’s just the perception that the rest of the world has of us. I think most people think we sit around eating po-boys with a side of red beans and rice everyday, drinking Barq’s or Dixie, and every once in awhile we let out a rousing ‘Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!’ But as a native, I can say that I’ve never witnessed such a thing.”