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A videotape by Louis Alvarez & Andrew Kolker
Transcript ©1985 by the Center for New American Media
{New Orleans expressions that may be unfamiliar to outsiders are printed in boldface and defined in the Instructional Guide.}
* * * * *

[Interviewer]: I want you tell me what this means, OK? I'm going to read you something. "I waited half-an-hour for my muffaletta, so the man gave me some lagniappe."

[Woman on NYC Street]: I'm supposed to tell you what a muffaletta is? A Muffler repair. "The man gave me some lanya...?"

[Interviewer]: "Lagniappe."

[Woman]: Lagniappe. Coffee!?

[Interviewer]: Muffaletta. No idea?

[Man]: Muffin?

[Interviewer]: Nope. Sandwich. Lagniappe?

[Man]: An omelette?

[Interviewer]: "Gave me some lagniappe."

[Woman]: How the hell am I supposed to know what that means?

[Man]: In New orleans, if you lived in New Orleans you would understand that? That's why they're in so much trouble down there! They don't speak any English, I mean, their English is horrendous!
/Music and Title Sequence/

[Martha Ward, English Professor]: New Orleans is a very self-conscious city. People here talk a lot about what New Orleans is like, how it's different from other places, how it's special and unique, and what we have that nobody else has, why people in New Orleans never want to leave once they've moved here. And speech is just one of those characteristics.

[George Reinecke, English Professor]: Language is an essential part of culture, and you demonstrate your culture in a number of ways, the ways you eat and what clothes you wear, and how you greet people, and how you stand, but also perhaps more than any of these, how you speak.

[Black Girl]: You just know when somebody is from somewhere else. You can't describe it--you just know they're not from here. When I was in school--during the summertime I was in Alabama, and they told me I talk fast, a lot faster.
[White Man in parade]: You know, when I was in the service , they thought I was from Brooklyn, New York. But I was born and raised right here in New Orleans! When I told them I was from New Orleans, they said "New Orleans, you've got to be crazy. You're from Brooklyn." I said, "Look at my driver's license." Brooklyn! New Orleans, born and raised!

[Mac Rebannack, composer]: One of the things I've found is very hard for people who aren't from here to understand is the dialect. I've had people ask me what language we were speaking when we were speaking English! At least to me good English!

[Narrator]: Forget what anyone else says. We do speak English in New Orleans. A dialect of English. Just like everyone else in America speaks a dialect. It's a form of English that;'s been influenced and changed through the years by the history and culture of the people who speak it. So hear in New Orleans, whenever we talk--which is something we love to do--you can hear our history talking too.

[Vegetable seller gives a traditional chant.]: Lettuce and tomato. Mandarin apples and oranges. Strawberries. Got lemon, got onion, got garlic. Vegetable man.

[Narrator]: But there isn't just one way of talking in New Orleans. There are many different New Orleans dialect spoken by many different New Orleanians. And if you fine-tune your ears to the way people speak, you can pick up a lot of unspoken information about them: from their social class to what part of town they grew up in.

[Voice of Irish Channel resident]: Look! It's a king-cake! What you got, my son> Did you get the baby? You can't have the party. I see it! I see it! I see it's little foot hanging out. Whenever we used to have king-cake parties my mama used to say :"don't come home with no baby, you ain't having no party!"

[Voices of black taxi drivers]: I tell you what I'm gonna do? What ar you gonna do? How much money you got on you? I got about 40 dollars. Put it up, and I'm gonna call him right now and tell him I need 600, and I bet you it'll be there when I get there. I said, Daddy gon' help you! I said, Daddy gon' help you!

[Voices of Garden District woman and her maid]: You surely are good to check on me every night. I really do appreciate it. -What did you fix for dinner? Well, nothing much. Mostly frozen foods, I think, cause you didn't cook anything for me today, unfortunately. Well, I'll fix a chicken breast for you tomorrow, and some green peas and rice, I know that's what you like, so I'll fix that for you tomorrow.

[Narrator]: In New Orleans, history and language ar tied together like red beans and rice . Actually, New Orleans's English was shaped by the French and Spanish who first settled here, and also by African languages, and the dialects of the deep South. And in the 19th century new immigrants to New Orleans added their own spice to the language. Some of the same Italians, Irish, and Germans who helped produce Brooklynese in New York also made their marks on New Orleans English. As all these people interacted with each other, they influenced each others' speech, and that's how New Orleans accents were born, and passed down from generation to generation.

[Little Girls nursery rhyme]: "Miss Lucy had a baby, it's name was Tiny Tim. She put it in the bathtub, to see if she could swim. She drunk up all the water, she ate up all the soap. She tried to eat the bathtub, but it wouldn't go down her throat."

[Martha Ward]: Everybody learns to talk in the same way. They learn it at home, first of all, from the people who love them or raise them. Later on they expand into their play activities, and they learn more things from their peers, and from institutions: churches, schools of course. In areas such as the Ninth Ward, certainly parts of the Ninth Ward, Tremé or the Seventh Ward, perhaps the Irish Channel is a good example, you find that people speak like each other, and they recognize that. They have a common identity with each other.
/Irish Channel street fair/

[Martha Ward]: Look at a typical New Orleans neighborhood. You may find grandparents living in the home, aunts uncles... Often those are the same people you see at church, they're certainly in the local businesses, kids are exposed to this all the time.

[Man at street fair]: The Third Ward was also on Poydras Street. That's right, the Third Ward...when Saratoga Street used to be where Loyola was! And where Loyola was is no longer there, because the City Hall parking lot is there! And that's where the Zulu Parade used to wind up on Poydras Street at 6:00 at night after having traversed all of New Orleans.

[Lady with glasses]: No, we were born here, raised in the Irish Channel. People from here, black white red green, we all talk the same way. If you was born around this neighborhood, you talk that way.

[Her daughter]: I live in Metairie, and I don;t think e have an accent. I think we talk the same as everyone else. Except people from the Ninth Ward!

[Lady with glasses]: People from out of state, they her what we say, they laugh at it, they think it's funny, but we have such a...We have warm, we have love in our voice. Our voice means love. We care for people. We don't have to go put on. That's the main thing. We don't have to go put on for nobody. We just talk good!

[Narrator]: Now since talking is something most of us take for granted, we hardly ever stop to think about how we speak, and we forget that some of the word we use every day might not make sense to somebody from out of town. Words like:

[Various New Orleanians]: Neutral ground.
Make groceries.
Solid quarter.
Go by my mama's.
I pass the mop and pass the vacuum.
Suck the heads and squeeze the tips!

[Narrator]: You can learn a lot about a culture from the words it uses. For instance, if you knew that the Eskimo had language and 42 words for "snow" and no word for "palm tree", you could get a pretty good picture of Eskimo life. Well, it works the same way in New Orleans. Listen to our words, and you won't have any trouble understanding what our priorities are.

[Restaurant Owner]: I'll have one remoulade, two gumbos, and a pannée meat plate on table 12.

[Sausage Merchant]: We have andouille, fresh andouille, we have the fresh hot sausage jambalaya, we have the fresh Creole sausage jambalaya, we have fresh barbecue, we have boudin.

[Bakery Customer]: I'd like a king-cake, please, the one with the icing. That's the medium? Fine.

[Street Musicians]: Second line? Bring it on down. Jazz band. Tremé section. Proud of Tremé...right, right.

[Mardi Gras crowds]: Can I have a doubloon? A heavy one?

[Masked woman]: Well, right now I'm with the krewe of Shangri-La and I'm a maid, but ordinarily I'm just a krewe member and I ride a regular float. And I enjoy that thoroughly.

[George Reinecke]: Mardi Gras is perhaps the single biggest item in the localism of New Orleans--the thing by which we identify ourselves more than anything else. And it certainly has produced a lot of words that you have to know if you're going to talk MG. If you know what a catch is, what a throw is, what a call-out is, what a krewe is, you identify yourself as local, and somebody from Houston may well say "Huh?" and you feel superior because you've been through it and all they've got is a lot more money.

[White woman]: My name is Deborah Chauvin, and basically I'm from the 9th Ward, I grew up on streets like St Claude, and Franklin, and North Rampart, in the Bywater section. I went to school at Colton and Nicholls...

[Black woman]: My name is Sharon Marie Hatfield. I', 15 years old. I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana in the Third Ward, which is the streets of Galvez, Miro, Third, you know, like that. I went to John Hoffman Elementary...

[White man]: My name is Clive Hardy. I grew up in the Garden District. My family lived there. It wasn't an old Garden District family, they'd only been in New Orleans about 150 years...My grandfather having come from Germany in the 1880s...

[Creole man]: I'm Robert "Sonny" Vaucresson, a native Orleanian. I was born and raised in New Orleans here in the 7th Ward. I attended all schools of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament ...

[Narrator]: In a big diverse city like New Orleans, there are many accents. Like a detective, you can listen to someone's dialect for clues to their identity, like what part of town they're from, how much money they make, or what racial or ethnic group they belong to.

[Language professor]: There are a number of different dialects in the area, and there are a number of shades between them. I think that the three major ones are the Downtown white, what are called the yat dialect, the uptown white, the upper class, upper educated Southern speech, and the Black dialect. But these shade into one another and there are many features that they have in common.

[Upper class men on the street talk about fishing]

[Upper-class man]: The best way to identify Uptown dialects is really by neighborhoods, which is what I think this thing is all about. I think there's a distinct University Section accent, a Carollton accent...then you mosey down to the Garden District, stopping off at St Stephens playground, that area around there on Camp Street. I think it really depends a lot on locale. And it's really something that's like a fingerprint. And you don't have to be like Henry Higgins to decide.

[Garden District man]: I had an aunt who lived at 1313 First St, which is just one block away from--that was Frank Strachan's home, which was Jefferson Davis' old home...and I just don't think the people in the Garden District have any accent.

[Uptown woman]: I don't think that Uptowners are aware that they have an accent at all, because they think they are the true New Orleanians, and the way they talk is the way New orleanians talk, and everybody else has a funny accent. They all find it very amusing, like "Oh, I heard this woman from the Ninth Ward", and they take their guests to see the architecture, and the food, and it's sort of "Let's go somewhere where you can hear some of these people talk, isn't it exciting"...and the irish channel accent, and the black accent, they find it amusing because it sounds so foreign.

[Black woman]: Someone that stays around Audubon park or around the Garden District, they talk totally different from someone who stays across the Canal in the lower Ninth Ward. You can tell.

[Narrator]: Our ears seem to pick up these accents automatically. We're quick to form impressions and make judgements of people as soon as they open their mouths.

[Young woman]: They have this, like, proper slang to the word they say. I was on Tulane's campus the other day, and I was listening to this chick talk--well, she was white, and she was like, preppy. Everything was like "Wow, man". You can tell it was a big difference. "Golly, gee!" Like, how much money do your parents have?

[Narrator]: Most people know they don't speak the King's English. But they can always point to people they think speak even worse. If you don;t talk what's called Standard Middle-Class English, you might run into problems. In New Orleans, this could happen if you speak Black dialect, or of you talk the famous "brooklynese" of the older city neighborhoods--the so-called "yat" talk.

[Viola King, educator]: The problems that a non-standards speaker faces in dealing with the outside world is primarily one of economics. And that is, speaking a non-standard dialect automatically makes one ineligible for employment in certain areas. Because unfortunately, speaking a non-Standard dialect is frequently interpreted as being lacking in intelligence, and lacking in education. And of course this isn't always true.

[Women on street]: There are people in our office who greet people--we were just talking about that--they have this "yat-ty" type dialect, and we were talking about how it's a bad impression when people first enter in our office.

[Irish Channel women]: I know how we talk. We kinda, I wouldn't necessarily say slur our words, but we don;t enunciate, and pronounce our words... When I want to talk proper, I will. If there's someone i have to impress, or let go of my yatisms, you know "where-y'at", yatisms, yat power, so to speak...

[Narrator]: If you speak one of these non-standard dialects, you usually know it. But how do you feel when someone points out that there something wrong with the way you speak?

[Irish Channel women]: They do it because it's ignorant. It sounds ignorant! A lot of people hearing this stuff, they say " What the hell's coming that garbage out of that' girl's mouth?" --that's it! That's gonna happen. --They're donna hear this and say "Loot at those two beautiful girls, if they shut their mouths they'd be great!" I've heard that so many times. Everybody tells us that. "If you would keep your mouth shut you'd be perfect." Once they hear that "nyah nyah nyah nyah..." Oh my God!

[Martha Ward]: In New Orleans, many middle-class people make fun of black speech, working-class dialect, and people thy call "yats". I don;t think they mean to be malicious, but they don't realize that the people they're mocking may find it offensive.

[Girls impersonating working-class people]: "Don't put carrots in there!" "Dahlin, I ain't scrubbing your floor," etc etc

[Girl]: The purpose of the party is a birthday party, and it's a costume party, and the idea for all the costume is to be your favorite New Orleanian. I'm trying to look like your typical Downtown, New Orleans yat, I guess, and so even though I don;t really know anyone in New Orleans like this, this is my favorite New Orleanian.

[Interviewer]: Do you think there are really people out there who talk like that?

[Girl]: There are. I know some. There are definitely people out there who go to Schwegmanns and wear exactly what she's wearing, right now, to the store. It's unbelievable,. They walk to the store, they have cutlers, but they have more clothes like that, like "I don;t really care, I'm going to Schwegmann;'s to buy food"--"make groceries"--for my ten children and my husband. It's funny, it really is.

[Martha Ward]: I think most of this is simply a way of talking about class and color. And categorization. How people fit into boxes. Talking about their speech is one way of doing that.

[Black Girls]: Have you been to the Worlds' Fair yet? I went to Patti LaBelle and Bobby Womack's concert. I was on the floor! Girl, yes, clowning at that concert. --Did you ride on that gondola? --No, indeed, that's too scary. Did you go to the kiddie wash?

[Narrator]: Some of the most distinctive accents in New Orleans are heard in Black neighborhoods. If you speak with a strong Black dialect, it's even harder to be accepted in the white community.

[Viola King]: Blacks do face a more serous problem when they speak a non-standard dialect that whites do, simply because of the racism in this country. I think generally at this particular time, there is not an acceptance of black non-standard dialect. I think generally there is a rejection of it.

[Man on street]: Alright, name me a statement that you think whites would make that would sound "proper", that I wouldn't make, being a black, that wouldn't sound proper. If they sound proper, how do I sound? Un-proper? Who determines that? The way a person speaks, or their accent? Could you tell me that--I'd like to know too, since you made that statement?

[Narrator]: So if you talk in a non-standard way, sometimes you have problems in the outside world. But if you do the opposite and talking standard English in your own neighborhood, you might run into even more problems.

[Viola King]: It is the means by which blacks identify with each other, and a black person pays a tremendous price when he uses standard English inappropriately. He may lose all of his friends. Or he may certainly limited them.

[Young man]: As the phrase goes, you can't come back to your own community once you leave it, because they won;t accept you anymore. You're going to be viewed as being quite different. That is the case. I am viewed as being different. iT's like a general conversation, "how are you doing, what's going on?" That's an opening phrase for me, as opposed to "What's up, dude, where you at, bro', what it is foley?" So that in itself makes a statement to them. You;re not one of us when you address us with that standard form, "What's going on, how you doin?" It's not what you do?

[Interviewer]: Do you think there three of you all talking the same way?

[Girls]: I think me and Sharon do, but not Amelia.

[Interviewer]: What's the difference?

[Girl #1]: I don;t use slang as much.

[Girl #2]: I know what the difference is. Amelia has a more proper voice than us. She talks proper.

[Girl #1]: I don't use slang as much.

[Interviewer]: Why not?

[Girl #2]: I know why. Because she's a school girl, and a mama's girl. I'm a mama's girl too, but you now, I still be using them slangs! "What's happening, girl, where you been? Alright foley, nothing much! That's my girl!"

[Girl #3]: "It ain't about nothing!"

[Interviewers]: So is that as bad thing to speak proper?

[Girls]: Yeah. Because some people look at you different because you don't use slang. They think you;re trying to be cute or something like that.

[Language therapist]: It's just not acceptable to talk in the black community like a white person. And so the black person often has to become bilingual. And I think sometimes the New Orleanian white person has to do that just so they'll fit back into their old personal relationships, and then have another way of talking for the office.

[Irish Channel women]: OK, when I would try to hide my accent, I would number one, lower the tone of my voice, and I would pronounce words more proficiently --you use big words, too! -- Right! "If you insinuate that I should tolerate the diabolical insubordination form a sadist like you", and day things like that, "Your capacity for audacity simply shocks my natural modesty."

[Viola King]: It is very difficult to separate ones language from oneself. And even though a person is mature, even though a person is mature, a person is poised, a person knows this, even though he knows it intellectually, emotionally there is still that strong feeling that if you criticize my language you are criticizing me.

[Man in street]: You see, I look at it like this. You can't look at the color of my skin and try to judge my insides, right? My hair might be natty, my clothes might be shabby, that can't stop you from loving me, right? Well, you know, people make the world go round. Judge not, or ye shall be judged.

[Interviewer]: Do you feel that way about the way you talk?

[Man]: The way I talk ain't got nothing to do with my heart, right?

[TV coverage]: We are live from the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. And they've got a new song and they've got a new saying in this town, and the Giff has become an expert on it: "Who dat says dey gonna beat them Saints?"

[Woman]: I think right now New Orleans is falling in love with itself. I think the artists' community here, the spirit is much higher than it was two years ago. I moved away from New Orleans when I was 21 because I couldn't stand the way people talked. The yat accent drove me crazy! People sounded so unintelligent. I wanted culture, right? So I moved to Los Angeles, to Hollywood, and from there I moved to New York, and lived there, and lived with people in Manhattan who spoke very much like they speak here. So then I came back and somehow, the accent, whatever I was repelled by, because endearing to me. And now I love it. I love listening to people who were real at it, who don;t affect it like I do, but who are real at it...

[George Reinecke]: Over the last ten years, 15 years maybe, the chances of substantial survival of the dialect aspect of this is much greater than it had been. IN other words, the number of reinforcements that you have for remaining that way, the consciousness that it is something you can be proud of, is much greater now that it was 20 years ago, no doubt of that.

[Interviewer]: So you;re not embarrassed by the way you talk?

[Man]: No, absolutely not. I mean, it;'s not a matter of pride or anything, but I don;t want to go through the process of making my tongue do the stuff you have to do to talk right. I mean, why put forth the effort...everybody knows me, right?