The accent of Katrina's diaspora
American history has been the history of people in motion. As the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast struggles to rebuild, many of those who fled the region are now finding their future in a different place. However dreadful the circumstances of its launch, this wave of migration, like other such waves before it, has the potential to be a great adventure.
At what we might call the retail level, Katrina's diaspora across the country could mean that some Utahns get to see dreadlocks in person for the first time. It will mean the quality of live jazz available rises significantly in many places. And I can't help thinking the great gumbo of accents and influences that is America's spoken language is about to get a mighty stir.
Not that the pot hasn't already been stirred and seasoned with the verbal spice of migrants and immigrants from all over. Sometimes a single characteristic sound or usage pops up in two very different places - the Scottish-influenced "oo" for "ou" ("aboot the hoose") that is heard in Canada is also found in Virginia, for instance.
Similarly, the characteristic New Orleanian accent, sometimes known as "Yat," turns out to have a fair bit in common with "Brooklynese," including the "er" sound that gets pronounced "oi" - as in "Toity-toid Street." Archie Bunker, look out.
The "oi" for "er" substitution isn't part of the Southern accents you hear in the movies. But from the audio archive of memory, I can summon up a couple of voices from my teen years in South Carolina in which that was a distinctive feature. Both cases were of people born probably before 1920, and in one case, very possibly before the turn of the century. I can't recall their having a specific connection to New Orleans, but I do recall one senior lady who spoke of "church work" as "choich woik," and somewhere I'd read that this was a characteristic of New Orleans.
Here's how Wikipedia describes the accent: "It is similar to a New York 'Brooklynese' accent to people unfamiliar with it. There are many theories to how the accent came to be, but it likely results from New Orleans' geographic isolation by water, and the fact that New Orleans was a major port of entry into the United States throughout the 19th century."
My research also enlightened me about "Yat" - people of New Orleans, who greet each other with "Where y'at?" instead of "How are you?" Some see "Yat" as a pejorative, but another source called it a "colloquial demonym" - a term for the inhabitants of a place, literally "the name of a people."
And as for "New Orleans" itself - does any other city name have more different pronunciations? A few weeks ago, when the news was all Katrina all the time, one could sometimes hear four or five within a single top-of-the-hour news bulletin. A little Web surfing confirms that I'm not the only one to notice this. One source writes of "a city whose very name is pronounced in nearly 100 different ways by its citizens, all the way from the filigreed, nearly five-syllable 'Nyoo Ahhlyins' to the monosyllabic grunt of 'Nawln.' "
I have a theory that a lot of people encounter the name of the city first in a song as they're growing up, and they tend to pronounce it the way it's pronounced in that song. If you grew up with "The City of New Orleans," that great tune about riding the rails, you have to say "Noo ORlins." If you grew up with "The House of the Rising Sun," you've got to call it "New or-LEANS" or it won't scan, or rhyme with "bluejeans" in the third verse.
Americans in motion have been listening to the music of one another's voices for centuries as one accent has rubbed against another. If in the months ahead you hear an expatriate New Orleanian looking for "woik," you'll understand what's meant.
• This appears with links at: http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy