Did Katrina kill the New Orleans accent?

Chita Manuel (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Kavi, I want to tell you about a woman I met in New Orleans.

Kavita Pillay: Yes, do tell.

Patrick Cox: Her name is…

Chita Manuel: Chita Manuel

Patrick Cox: She was born and raised in New Orleans. And I asked her how she identifies herself.

Chita Manuel: Creole.

Patrick Cox: Creole.

Chita Manuel: Actually, perfect. Perfect.

Patrick Cox: Perfect sounds good.

Chita Manuel voiceover: Perfect is good.

Kavita Pillay: Oh, I love it. Big personality!

Patrick Cox: And Chita’s way of speaking, her choice of words, they’re super big too, not exactly standard American. In fact, she’s not a fan of standard American in any shape or form. She calls the 49 states that aren’t Louisiana, “Inner America.” Not a compliment.

Kavita Pillay: Is that choice of words and that way of speaking, does that have anything to do with her being Creole?

Patrick Cox: I think so. Being Creole to her means — well a whole bunch of stuff including using this flowery, baroque speech.

Chita Manuel: I do feel that Creoles are a dying breed, culturally. With every generation you lose something. I think we’ve lost a whole lot more.

Kavita Pillay: Hmm, what does she mean by a whole lot more?

Patrick Cox: She’s talking about Hurricane Katrina. I ask her about this. What specifically?

Chita Manuel: How about a post-Katrina influx of crazy people who are committed to destroying everything.

Patrick Cox: Meaning outsiders from “Inner America,” who’ve settled in New Orleans, and have set out to — as she puts it — destroy the city’s culture.

Chita Manuel: I mean, when you look at the city, she has been made prettier with some of the things. Some of the things, they’ve destroyed.

Kavita Pillay: Did Chita just call New Orleans a “she”? Did she use “she” pronouns?

Patrick Cox: She did!

Chita Manuel: I’ve heard people who have written poetry referring to New Orleans in the feminine. One person told someone that New Orleans was the kind of city that would take you, make love to you, and all you want to do is keep coming back for more.

Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Kavita Pillay.

Patrick Cox: I’m Patrick Cox. What is happening to the voice of New Orleans Are the dialects and accents of one of America’s culturally richest cities dying? And how much does it have to do with Katrina?

Patrick Cox: Have you ever been to New Orleans Kavi?

Kavita Pillay: No, sadly.

Patrick Cox: Well, I’ve only been a couple of times. One thing you notice right away is how well the city sells itself. Like Mardi Gras. And then there’s the food, of course, and the music, which is incredibly varied — you’ve probably heard one of those bands that play at funeral marches? Another big selling point from the tourist office is how people talk.

New Orleans Tourist Board video:

“Where you from?”

“The New Orleans accent comes from multiple cultures that’s been here and over time, I think we’ve adapted to different languages, whether its French, Spanish, even a little bit of other cultures like Italian and German, and also African American”

“The kind of accent I have is though creole and New Orleans mixed”

“I think for me, I was raised right here on the Bayou, I lived here my whole life, and it’s the way everybody around here talks”

Kavita Pillay: It seems so different from, of course, northern parts of the US but also eastern, western, midwestern — and also really different from other parts of the south. So, is New Orleans the center of Creole culture? And what about Cajun? What is the difference between the two?

Patrick Cox: I had to ask somebody about this: Katie Carmichael. She’s a sociolinguist at Virginia Tech and she’s spent most of her adult life studying the accents and dialects of New Orleans and Louisiana. So, Cajuns first.

Katie Carmichael: Cajun is rural. There are no Cajuns in New Orleans. Cajuns are all out in the bayous and the prairies.

Patrick Cox: Cajuns are French heritage, but Katie says they didn’t all come from the place they’re named after, which is Acadia in French Canada; they came from a bunch of places, including directly from France.

Katie Carmichael: What was the uniting factor was they were all poor. So they all kind of got lumped in with this Cajun label, even though we have evidence that the French that they speak has provenance from a few different locations.

Kavita Pillay: So I’m trying to remember my American history here: were Cajuns there at the time of the Louisiana purchase?

Patrick Cox: I had to look that up because I had no American history — but yes, the Cajuns were there in 1803 when the US bought Louisiana from France.

Kavita Pillay: Got it. And the Cajun dialect: is that still a thing?

Patrick Cox: Yes, and it’s made a bit of a comeback. People didn’t always like to be called Cajuns, but they do now — and they express that in the way they speak. And some local Cajuns made good have become wildly popular.

TV reporter: “Ed Orgeron talked a lot about his Cajun heritage. His grandparents spoke Cajun French”

Patrick Cox: So this sports reporter is talking about, Ed Orgeron , he’s the head football coach of LSU — Louisiana State University — which happens to be the national college champion. And he has this fantastic gravelly voice.

Ed Orgeron: I was a fan long before I was a coach at LSU, now I’m coach. [Switches to French]

Kavita Pillay: I am going to guess that there aren’t a lot of football coaches who speak French.

Patrick Cox: Yeah “Coach O” is all about his Cajun heritage.

Kavita Pillay: So that’s Cajun. What about Creole? Creole means different things in different places. What does it mean in New Orleans?

Patrick Cox: OK, super crude explanation: Creole — the way it’s used in New Orleans — has changed over time. But today, it means someone of mixed race, someone with some combination of French, Spanish and African heritage whose ancestors likely came from the Caribbean: many were freed slaves and they settled in New Orleans. So, unlike the Cajuns, Creoles are New Orleanians.

Kavita Pillay: So, my limited understanding is that both Cajuns and Creoles will incorporate some French words in their speech, but are you saying that these are distinct cultures?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, they are distinct cultures. Except when it comes to Zydeco music.

Kavita Pillay: I love Zydeco.

Patrick Cox: It’s a blend of Cajun and Creole music with a couple of other musical influences thrown in. But here’s the thing about Creoles: Like Chita Manuel said at the start of the podcast, Creoles may be a dying breed. At least in terms of how people identify themselves. Chita’s kids and grandkids — they call themselves African American.

Kavita Pillay: Hmm. I’m so struck by that, that their Creole identity is being absorbed by their African American identity?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, at least for Chita’s kids, they don’t see the value in identifying as Creole, or possibly speaking that way either. And aside from all these multiple forms of self-identification, New Orleans is close to the mouth of the Mississippi: it’s a port, and so it’s a real crossroads of cultures and languages. That makes it less like most American cities, and more like cities like Venice or Sarajevo where there’s a ton of trading over the centuries that’s attracted a huge diversity of people.

Katie Carmichael: So, I was born in New Orleans.

Patrick Cox: This is sociolinguist Katie Carmichael again.

Katie Carmichael: And my family moved to the DC area when I was still an infant. But we’d always come back and visit. I had been to Mardi Gras as a kid. And so, when I was looking at colleges, I knew I wanted to come back to New Orleans. So I came to Tulane and I did my undergrad and my masters here, smack dab in the middle of Hurricane Katrina.

Archive audio/woman on phone: I need someone out here ma’am. I’m gonna die in this attic. The water started rising in the attic ma’am. And I’m going to drown in the attic. I’m 37 years old.

Archive audio/reporter: The scene is nothing short of apocalyptic. Eighty percent of New Orleans including much of downtown is underwater. The Big Easy’s famous Canal St living up to its name. And rising waters will now force officials to evacuate the shelter at the Superdome. Katrina’s departure was just the beginning of the misery.

Kavita Pillay: I really remember this because I had just moved to India for a year, and so I’m watching this news from thousands of miles away and I have all these Indians around me also disbelieving these, what we’re watching about this desperate situation, a lot of people not getting rescued, and the death toll was unbelievable.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, and it was all taking place in a city that at the time was completely psychologically unprepared for it because it was so insular, so much more so than other American cities.

Katie Carmichael: People were born here. They lived here. They stayed in their town. They stayed in their neighborhood, in New Orleans, in New Orleans. It was very typical to have a double, which is a house with two front doors and two apartments on either side. Very typical to have a double where your momma was on one side and you were on the other side. “How’s ya mom’n’em?” is a common greeting here and that’s in part because family is so central to the New Orleans identity and staying put is so central. Then you have Hurricane Katrina. And for the first time, everybody, everybody was displaced for at least a month.

Archive news report/woman on the street: “We don’t have transportation. We’re living paycheck to paycheck. I mean it ain’t like we cant just get up and leave.”

Patrick Cox: But leave many thousands did. What happened to New Orleans speech after Katrina, that’s after the break.

Katie Carmichael: The biggest demographic difference pre- and post-Katrina is the African American population in the city has gone down significantly and a lot of these people have been permanently displaced. There are huge populations in Atlanta and Houston now.

Patrick Cox: Back again with Katie Carmichael of Virginia Tech. So tens of thousands of people who thought they’d be gone no more than a week or two: they never came back. The lowest-lying sections of New Orleans were African American neighborhoods, so that was where the flooding was worst and where the houses there were the most damaged. The people who’ve moved to New Orleans since Katrina have been mainly white and Latino. That had already been going on in a gradual way. But Katrina turbocharged it. Which meant that the changes in accent and dialect were also turbocharged.

Katie Carmichael: New Orleans culture is so rich and so specific to the city and a lot of the newcomers. That’s one of the things that they love and they embrace. But there’s this idea of, well, this doesn’t belong to you. You can’t say that word. That’s not your word.

Kavita Pillay: Whoa! “That’s not your word.” What words in particular?

Patrick Cox: It’s funny, it’s a lot of the same words that are in the tourism videos that celebrate New Orleans speech.

Katie Carmichael: “Making groceries” is one of those iconic linguistic phrases here or “How’s your momma and dem?” that I mentioned. You add these phrases that the newcomers sort of want to borrow and want to use, and there’s this sort of rejection of that from the longstanding locals, even as in some cases the locals have already moved away from these features. There’s this re-embracing of these things that they think are their property as New Orleanians.

Patrick Cox: It’s like they’re taking a last stand. Here are these words in the videos, on T-shirts, even a word like “Creole.” They’ve all become fetishized — and the dispute over them has turned toxic. When outsiders say them, it’s like a double reminder to born-and-bred New Orleanians. The words are reminiscent of the New Orleans before Katrina, but they’re also a reminder that a bunch of newcomers have “taken over” the city. And I guess that makes it worth taking these words back as your property, even if you’ve stopped using them.

Patrick Cox: I’m driving around the city with Nathalie Dajko. She’s a linguist too, at Tulane. In fact, she works closely with Katie Carmichael. First stop, Natalie’s house.

Nathalie Dajko: Our block was predominantly black. Even when I moved in. These days, I think we got one or two houses left that that belong to black families. Everybody else is white.

Patrick Cox: We drive on. Nathalie’s originally from Canada.

Kavita Pillay: Oh so, is she one of those outsiders?

Patrick Cox: Well, not exactly. She’s been here for decades. And as we drive— because it’s like a thing you do — she tells me her Katrina story.

Nathalie Dajko: It was a friend of mine at the time who was watching Weather Underground. Right. You can track, they show you the computer models. And so he kept saying, “Oh, it’s going to come here.” But this is like Tuesday or something, and it was still over the panhandle and like, “Relax,” whatever. So I think it was Friday night. I guess I made some hotel reservations or motel reservations. I made one in Vicksburg and one in Jackson and one in Memphis.

Patrick Cox: She ended up in Memphis.

Nathalie Dajko: Everybody in the motel pretty much was from New Orleans, right. So there was this. Oh, where are you from? “We’re from Gentilly.” “I’m from here,” and etc. And we’re all watching this TV in the lobby. And I don’t know why we were all in the lobby instead of in our rooms, but there we were. And it was after midnight. It was surreal, right, watching that cloud just spin toward the city. And intellectually, I guess we all knew that something could happen. But I don’t think that we really thought anything would happen. We’re like, “Well, we’ll be back in a few days,” whatever. And sure enough, in the morning, it was right — the devastation.

Kavita Pillay: But she came back?

Patrick Cox: Yes, she did, and she picked up her life again from there. And just as she’s ending her Katrina story, we arrive at our destination.

Sound of New Orleans streetcar

Patrick Cox: A streetcar named Desire.

Kavita Pillay: No, what?

Patrick Cox: No, not really. Just a house next to a streetcar stop. We’re here to see Chita Manuel, the woman we met at the top of the pod.

Kavita Pillay: Ah yeah, the “perfect” Creole gal, the big personality.

Chita Manuel: I had to leave after Katrina and I ended up in Arkansas. Of course, I didn’t live in Lakeview, so I wasn’t given $250,000 to rehab my house. I wasn’t offered enough to rehab it. So I ended up selling it for basically by today’s standards, a little or nothing. In other words, Katrina screwed me.

Patrick Cox: With her deep dislike for those “inner American” newcomers who have all those different ways of saying, well, everything.

Chita Manuel: Then they want to tell us how to pronounce the names of our streets, which is an absolute no-no.

Patrick Cox: Okay, so give me an example of a street name that..

Chita Manuel: Calliope. Melponene and Melponene. Burgundy is, I don’t know what they say for them. There’s a couple of them in the quarter. You could be in a grocery store and they’ll try and correct you. I don’t like them. I wish they would just go back. You know, you would think it’s because of my age, but my daughter feels it, too. She’s just thirty-seven. Thirty-eight. So that was 15 years ago. She was in her twenties, you know. But there’s certain things that she doesn’t feel her children will experience that she experienced. You can’t even find a bartender from New Orleans. That’s an anomaly these days. And, that was also part of the New Orleans experience, interacting with people from New Orleans. You know, you didn’t have to come and destroy hundreds of years of history and recipes and culture to satisfy your need to party.

Kavita Pillay: There is a lot of pain there and she sounds really distressed about her home town.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, it’s like, I don’t know, someone’s stealing her identity.

Kavita Pillay: So, how bleak is this? Is New Orleans culture and the way that New Orleanians speak — is it being wiped out?

Patrick Cox: Well the linguists, Nathalie and Katie, they’re in the midst of figuring that out, and figuring out what may come next. Here’s Katie.

Katie Carmichael: One potential outcome is, there’s a growing linguistic divide within the city of New Orleans between the newcomers and the longstanding population. Another possibility is that these newcomers would assimilate to the local patterns, would just keep sort of adopting these local features until it’s accepted. And then if they’re here long enough, they have the next generation of kids. And those kids are truly New Orleanians and they’re from here. And still a third possibility, which seems like perhaps the most likely right now, is that the newcomer influx will sort of drown out a lot of the things that made New Orleans linguistically distinct and it will lose some of these linguistic features. The one thing in our research so far that gives me hope that that may not be the path is that we do see some new distinctive features that are rising. So, for example, one of the features we’re really interested in here is something that’s called Canadian Raising, which you wouldn’t think you’d find in New Orleans. But this is the sort of out and about pronunciation. Young people in New Orleans have started doing this. It’s very strange and unexpected. And so, this is sort of where one of our research questions is taking us is what is this feature mean to New Orleanians? Is this a new way of marking New Orleans identity? Will this be the new way of sort of distinguishing from the other cities in the American South?

Kavita Pillay: So, as I’m listening to Katie, what I’m getting is that language is changing everywhere, all the time, whether you like it or not, whether you’re aware of it or not. Usually it’s slow and imperceptible, but in New Orleans, because of Katrina you’ve got dramatic geographic, demographic, and linguistic changes, all of which happened so quickly.

Patrick Cox: That may be part of why it’s so distressing to Chita. Just the speed of it. But it’s possible that without Katrina, much of this could have happened. I mean, there was already gentrification, there were already cases of African Americans being priced out of certain neighborhoods. Katrina came along and it was like gentrification on steroids. That said, Katrina directly caused a massive exodus of people, especially African Americans, and it certainly looks as though it permanently altered the linguistic make-up of New Orleans.

Kavita Pillay: Right, and this is far from the only place where climate-related catastrophes are sending people on the march like refugees.

Patrick Cox: And accelerating linguistic change.

Patrick Cox: I did ask Chita Manuel if I could take her photo. Her reply was very much in character. “Only if you make me look gorgeous.” I’ll post a few photos on social media, and it’ll also be at subtitlepod.com.

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Patrick Cox. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey.

Thanks to Julia Kumari Drapkin, our partners at the Linguistic Society of America and the Hub & Spoke audio collective.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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