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Yeah You Rite!
An Instructional Guide
University of the District of Columbia and
the Center for Applied Linguistics
Hunter College High School
New York, New York
The videotape "Yeah You Rite!"
was produced and directed by
Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker
and supported by grants from
The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities
The Louisiana Division of the Arts
City of New Orleans Municipal Endownment Grants
A project of
The Center for New American Media
589 Eighth Av, 21st Floor
New York, NY 10018-3001
Videotape @ 1985 CNAM
Guide @ 1990 CNAM
INTRODUCING THE VIDEO
Little introduction is needed in presenting the video. For the most part, it is self-explanatory, although viewers who are not from New Orleans would benefit from the following brief history of New Orleans and its dialects. Viewers should also be told that dialects are an important part of all of American society, and that the microcosm of New Orleans reflects how dialects function throughout the country. Audiences can be asked to observe how English in the city varies, the kinds of attitudes New Orleanians have about dialects, and the controversies that surround their use. If the video is shown in the context of a particular subject area (e.g., English studies, history, sociology, linguistics, psychology, etc.), viewers might be alerted to observe some of the particular emphases of the discipline, but no elaborate pre-viewing explanation is called for.
The terms accent and dialect are used interchangeably in the video to refer to language variation associated with regional and social differences among speakers of a language. These differences can occur not only in pronunciation, but also in grammar, vocabulary, and conversational style.
ABOUT NEW ORLEANS AND ITS DIALECTS
Located 150 miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans is the largest city in Louisiana. Its primary industries are energy and tourism, with the Port of New Orleans also playing a major role in the local economy.
Originally an Indian portage, New Orleans became the home of French exiles, entrepreneurs, and their slaves beginning in 1718. As the city developed in spite of its adverse climate and topography, a large number of Germans also came to live in the French colony and its vicinity. As the ethnic groups merged, New Orleans came under Spanish dominion in 1762, as a treaty concession at the end of the Seven Years' War. The Spanish influence is most marked in New Orleans, ironically, in the architecture of the famous French Quarter, most of which was rebuilt in 1788 after a fire. The descendants of the mix of peoples who were the original settlers of New Orleans are called "Creoles" and include the "Creoles of Color", who are the descendants of French-speaking Blacks who had not been slaves, or the children of white men and their black slaves. Both Creole groups still spoke French until the middle of this century.
Napoleon regained control of New Orleans in 1800, but three years later, the United States secured New Orleans in the Louisiana Purchase. Seeking enterprise, many Northerners came to settle in the area, but animosity developed between the new arrivals and the French-speaking Creoles. The Creoles remained in the French Quarter, while the Northerners settled outside the Quarter in an area called "Uptown". These broad neighborhood distinctions, and many more specific ones, are reflected in the attitudes voiced in "Yeah You Rite!".
The nineteenth century in New Orleans saw many of the same waves of immigration experienced by the large American cities of the Eastern Seaboard. First Irish, then German, and finally Italian and Yugoslavian immigrants developed substantial communities in the cities. Rural Blacks from upstate Louisiana and Mississippi also increased the city's population. All these groups affected the local ways of speaking, and the presence of large numbers of European immigrants helps explain the perceived similarity between the New Orleans working-class dialect and the universally-recognized "Brooklyn accent" in New York.
One group which is not present in large numbers but is erroneously believed to be indigenous to New Orleans is the Cajuns. These French-speaking, largely rural people first arrived from Acadia, French Canada, in the late 1800s and settled in the low-lying parishes west of New Orleans. ("Cajun" is a contraction of "Acadian".) Although they have a distinctive way of speaking English, the Cajuns have not played a major role in affecting the urban speechways of New Orleans, apart from contributing a few lexical items like "jambalaya".
Today the New Orleans metropolitan area is home to over one million people. The old city neighborhoods are now 50% Black, 50% white. The suburbs are overwhelmingly white, many settled by working-class and middle-class families who moved away from the city during the post-World War II period.
Because of its long history and relative geographic isolation, the city has developed a rich and unique culture, which encompasses music, food, and architecture. The Catholic religion predominates, and such French Catholic holidays as Mardi Gras (the roistering carnival that precedes Lent) and All Saints' Day (November 1, the Day of the Dead) play an important role in the city's cultural life. Despite its location, New Orleans is in many ways not a Southern city, but a world unto itself.
Traditionally, many New Orleans neighborhoods were segregated by economics rather than race, which promoted shared linguistic development. In the video, you will hear many of these areas referred to. Dialects are usually classified in New Orleans by the neighborhoods where they are spoken; the main exception is the umbrella dialect referred to somewhat disparagingly as "yat", which is an abbreviation of "Where you at?" -- a greeting commonly used in working-class areas. You will notice that some neighborhoods are termed "wards", based on the previous political subdivisions of the city. Neighborhood identity is clearly revealed in the way that residents still refer to the "wards", even though the system has not been in operation for over 30 years. Some of the neighborhoods you will hear mentioned are:
A. Uptown -- a large area upriver of the French Quarter, comprised of several neighborhoods including:
a. The Irish Channel -- originally settled by the Irish and German, now a mix of working-class Black, Central American, Irish, and German residents;
b. The Garden District -- a name synonymous with "Old Money", Filled with enormous century-old mansions, this neighborhood is the home of white civic leaders and wealthy businesspeople, many of whom have lived in New Orleans for generations;
c. Central City -- originally a working class Irish, German, and Black neighborhood, now predominantly Black and the original home of many of New Orleans' famous musicians. Most of Central City's residents are the descendants of slaves; many families emigrated from the rural South to work in the Port of New Orleans early in the 20th Century.
B. Downtown -- the area downriver from the French Quarter, largely working-class and lower middle-class, with a racially mixed population. Downtown neighborhoods include:
a. The French Quarter -- originally rich in cultural diversity, now the haven of tourists, artists, and a more transient New Orleans population;
b. The Ninth Ward -- like the Irish Channel, this sprawling neighborhood was originally settled by Irish, German, and Slavic workers, and maintains a broad cultural mix. In the eyes of many locals, the Ninth Ward is a paradigm of the classic New Orleans neighborhood.
c. Tremé [pronounced TRE-may] -- a largely Black neighborhood adjacent to and architecturally the equal of the French Quarter, essentially working-class;
d. The Seventh Ward -- the historic neighborhood of the Creoles of Color, the descendants of the pre-Civil War Free People of Color. French was spoken in this neighborhood well into the 20th Century, and New Orleans' first two Black mayors, Dutch Morial (elected 1977) and Sidney Barthelemy (elected 1985), were born here. Seventh Warders were traditionally artisans and also played a major role in the development of New Orleans jazz.
C. Jefferson Parish -- The neighboring parish, or county, to New Orleans, largely a white-flight suburb. Chief among its communities is Metairie. Many of its citizens originally lived in working-class city areas like the Irish Channel and the Ninth Ward, and they brought their urban dialects with them. Even today, many Jeffersonians identify their speech as a "Ninth Ward accent".
NEW ORLEANS EXPRESSIONS
The following expressions, virtually all of which are in common circulation in New Orleans, can be heard in "Yeah You Rite!"
andouille -- a spicy sausage
banquette -- sidewalk
bobo -- a slight injury, e.g. a scratch
boudin -- a spicy sausage made of chicken, pork, or veal
catch -- the act of catching the doubloons or other souvenirs thrown from Mardi Gras floats
doubloons -- souvenir coins thrown from Mardi Gras floats
go by my mama's -- visit my mother; "by" is also used in "stay by", meaning to live at (I stay by my mama = I'm living at my mother's house)
gumbo -- a spicy soup, usually made with chicken or seafood
I passed the mop and passed the vacuum -- I cleaned up
jambalaya -- a spicy rice stew of Creole origin
King cake -- A multicolored sweet roll baked in the form of a ring. Eaten during Carnival time (Mardi Gras), the cake contains one tiny plastic doll concealed in the dough. Whoever is served the piece with the doll inside is compelled to organize another party, with another King Cake, within the next week. A perfect self-perpetuating New Orleans cultural event!
krewe -- a Mardi Gras organization that organizes parades and balls every year; each krewe has its own float with a king, queen, and court
lagniappe -- a little something extra
maid -- a member of a krewe court
make groceries -- derived from the French, "faire le marché", which is literally translated as "make the marketing"
muffuletta [moofu-LATa] -- a round Italian sandwich
a pair of beads -- one strand of Mardi Gras beads thrown from a float by a member of a krewe (q.v.)
pannée meat [PAN-nay] -- breaded meat
pinch da tails -- see "suck the heads..."
po-boy -- a sandwich served on a loaf of French bread, the local equivalent to the hoagie, hero, submarine, grinder, or wedge
neutral ground -- the strip in the middle of a parkway
remoulade -- a cold spicy sauce, usually served with boiled shrimp
second line -- the line created by neighborhood people who dance along with a street parade
silver dime -- a 10c piece, called by a special name because, for unknown reasons, dimes are rare in New Orleans
solid quarter -- a 25c piece
suck the heads and squeeze the tips -- the New Orleans way of eating crawfish, shellfish that resemble small lobsters
throw -- the beads and doubloons thrown from a Mardi Gras float
Zulu parade -- Zulu is one of the oldest and most famous Mardi Gras krewes, and the most important Black-dominated Carnival organization. One of the most prized Mardi Gras throws are the golden coconuts tossed from Zulu floats.
There are three major areas in the presentation that are ideal for discussion: 1) the nature of dialect differences, 2) basic attitudes about dialects in American society, and 3) the uses of standard and vernacular dialects. There is ample illustration of each of these issues to serve as the basis for a detailed and lively post-viewing discussion.
I. THE NATURE OF DIALECT DIFFERENCES
Dialects are a natural, inevitable part of cultural and regional differences in American society. Furthermore, all communities have dialect differences of one type or another. Viewers should reinforce these facts by citing different scenarios from the video and by citing dialect differences between them.
What kinds of dialect differences do you notice in this area?
When you travel someplace outside of the region is there anything in particular people notice about your speech?
A woman from Metairie says that she "doesn't have an accent." Does this woman speak a dialect? Do you speak a dialect?
Questions about dialects from viewers should elicit anecdotes about dialect peculariaties in the local community or in other communities where people have travelled. For the most part, the anecdotes may be expected to focus on vocabulary differences and pronounciation differences. As the discussion develops, it is important to emphasize to viewers that each and every one of them speaks a dialect.
A. Manifestations of
There are a number of different levels of language in which dialect variation can be revealed. Most of these are amply illustrated in the video. These include pronounciation, vocabulary, grammar, and language functions (i.e., how language is used to carry out various communicative and social functions. By referring to different scenarios in the video, you can lead viewers to recognize those levels of dialect differences.
 Pronounciation (The
Pronounciation of Words):
QUESTION: What sort of pronunciation differences can you observe among the people in the program? How do their ways of saying words differ from your own?
 Vocabulary (The labels for different items and activities):
The use of words such as banquette 'sidewalk', po-boy 'hero sandwich', make groceries 'go shopping', and so forth illustrate the vocabulary level of language differences.
Are there words in the video you did not know before viewing it? Which ones?
What are some of the different words around here that people from New Orleans might not know?
 Grammar (The way
words are composed and put into sentences):
The lack of verbs (e.g., 'Yeah, you rite' instead of 'Yeah, you are right'), a grammatical difference, is amply illustrated by speakers in the video (e.g., when the Black man who speaks standard English details the vernacular greetings in his neighborhood.)
How do people from different social groups use grammar in different ways?
 Language Functions
(The way language forms are used to carry out the social functions of communication):
Different styles of greeting, carrying on a conversation, and interacting with language illustrate language function differences. How does the conversational style of the two white Garden District men walking and talking on the downtown street differ from that of the three Black teenagers on the porch? What mental pictures did you form of the people having the three overheard but unseen conversations at the beginning of the program? This level of difference is a critical aspect of dialect differences that is somethimes overlooked in the consideration of dialect differences.
Can you think of different kinds of greeting styles that different groups have?
What are some ways that people use language differently as they relate to each other?
B. Reasons for Dialect Differences
Dialect differences come from a number of different sources, including historical settlement patterns, contact with other language groups, and physical and social separation.
 Settlement Patterns
The Irish and German-American Northerners who settled in the Uptown area of New Orleans, and particularly the Garden District, spoke differently from the earlier French and Spanish settlers in the Downtown. These differences are still reflected in New Orleans accents.
Do you know where the original settlers from your area came from? Are there any features of the local dialects you think can be traced to these early settlers?
 Contact with Other Languages
Notice how words like panne meat, jambalaya, and banquette, all of which come from French, are still used in areas where there is fairly close contact with other languages.
Can you think of other words from other languages that are used in certain regions? Why are certain foreign words used in some regions and not in others?
 Physical and Social Isolation
Ethnic and class separation may lead to the development and maintenance of dialect differences. Notice how many New Orleans accents are classified by the neighborhood in which they are spoken.
What social conditions might go along with physical separation to result in the maintenance of a dialect?
How might you account for the differences in a dialect like Black English?
II. ATTITUDES ABOUT
There are a variety of attitudes toward dialects that are illustrated in the presentation. Many of the participants reveal traditional mainstream attitudes which view the local dialect negatively. However, there are also some attitudes about vernacular dialects that are positive, and reinforce the local usage. In certain contexts, and for particular social values, these attitudes about the community dialect may be surprisingly positive.
If a group is socially prestigious, then its dialect will also be prestigious, and if a group is socially stigmatized, then its dialect also will be stigmatized by the mainstream society. Try to get students to see the strength of this association by asking them about the relative prestige of different dialects illustrated in the video.
Are there any dialects that are prestigious in the presentation? Why?
What dialects are socially stigmatized? Why are they stigmatized?
The young woman who wears her hair in curlers at the costume party makes many assumptions about those who use a "yat" dialect. Suppose you get a phone call from someone you have never met; would you form an opinion of the person based on speech?
B. Dialect Prejudice
Dialect prejudice can be very strong. In the video, two young office workers think that a receptionist with a "yat" accent is not an appropriate representative of their company.
What are some other scenes in "Yeah You Rite!" that show prejudice against the speech of a particular region, class, or social group?
How do people feel about themselves when they are constantly told that their dialect is inferior? How do the two young woman who call themselves "yats" feel when people tell them they are beautiful until they open their mouths?
Do you find that the media reinforces stereotypes about dialects? When?
C. Dialect Identity
Not all attitudes about local dialects are negative. In fact, these dialects may serve some very important positive functions within a community. Their use can promote a feeling of group solidarity, trustworthiness, and friendliness, all positive attributes.
What are some of the positive reasons for using a local dialect?
How do the two Black girls who tease their friend for being a "school girl" and a "mama's girl" feel about their own language? Are there other cases where people express a love for their community dialect?
III. THE USES OF STANDARD
AND VERNACULAR DIALECTS
Speaking a standard dialect certainly has advantages in certain settings, but it can also present a dilemma for a person in terms of local community norms. Not everyone needs to speak a standard dialect for all social occasions. Furthermore, there are consequences that go along with the use of both a standard and local dialect.
What are some advantages to speaking a standard dialect?
Learning a standard dialect can often cause a dilemma for a person because of a conflict between the "outside" world and the local community. Are there any disadvantages to speaking standard English in certain contexts? (Review the scene in which the Black man who speaks standard English describes his isolation from the community where he grew up.)
Most people adjust their language based on the situation, including their familiarity with people they're talking to and the formality of the situation, as the young woman with the "yat" accent demonstrates.
What advantages may come from being able to shift dialects?
Do you shift dialects depending on where you are and the people you're talking to? What are some settings where you might shift your dialect?
There are both negative and positive consequences associated with the use of any dialect, whether it is "standard" English or a local non-standard English variety. Each person must weigh the consequences of different dialects and make choices about appropriate dialect usage on that basis. Dialects are an important aspect of the American heritage representing its different regional, social, and ethnic groups; they also present a dilemma for speakers because of the different values associated with their usage.
FURTHER VIEWING AND
"American Tongues" is another documentary produced by the Center for New American Media that focuses on similar issues of language and culture, this time studying the broader spectrum of the United States. The award-winning program is available in two lengths: Standard (55 minutes) and High School (40 minutes). Copies can be bought or rented from CNAM Film Library, 22-D Hollywood Av, Hohokus NJ 07423. Telephone (800) 343-5540. There are many printed works on dialects that might be consulted for the viewer interested in further reading; however, many of these are fairly technical reading for the non-specialist. The series of booklets entitled Dialects and Educational Equity, published by the Center for Applied Linguistics and distributed by Prentice-Hall Inc., provides a basic introduction to the issues of dialects in a readable question-answer format. Specific booklets in the series are Dialogue on Dialects, Exploring Dialects, Dialects and Reading, Dialects and Language Arts, and Dialects and Speech Pathology.