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Hurricane Katrina Spices the Linguistic Flavor of New Orleans

Greeting changes from 'Where y'at?' to 'How's ya' house?' as returning residents rebuild.

November 27, 2005|Mary Foster | Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS — In this city of so many linguistic influences, Hurricane Katrina is the latest to reshape the colorful local tongue.

You hear it all over town: for instance, a supermarket, where two friends were reunited like thousands of others after exile in whatever city Katrina blew them to.

"How's ya' house?" Walter Thompson inquired cautiously of buddy Mark Smith.

Thompson was speaking what has become the new, oft-repeated greeting in this city of wrecked homes and dislocated people.

"How's ya' house?" has replaced the more cheerful "Where y'at?" as the unofficial salutation.

The latest conversation starter is laden with the deep love residents hold for their houses, many of them more than a century old and built in styles unique to the area -- and many lost to the hurricane and flooding. (Thompson and Smith were lucky; neither had extensive damage.)

It's also appropriate for a city rich with distinct colloquialisms.

Around here, people go to the market to "make groceries," not buy them.

They go "by your house," instead of to it.

Once they get there, they may decide to "stay over."

People are likely to ask, "How's your mom an' them?" to inquire about family.

"Only now, that's probably, 'Where's your mom an' them?' " Thompson said.

And in the Big Easy, it's not only the saying itself that piques visitors' interest. It's also the way it's spoken.

Sure, there's a touch of the South, but the New Orleans accent tends to be less Scarlett O'Hara and more Godfather.

That's probably because of the numerous linguistic influences.

Founded by the French, New Orleans also was ruled by the Spanish. Along the way, the Cajuns came through with a tongue far from today's Parisian version.

Add immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy and England, and slaves who spoke many African languages, and you have ingredients as varied as a pot of gumbo.

New arrivals coming to New Orleans to join in the rebuilding may spice this linguistic recipe with even more flavors.

The city's "y'at" dialect, in fact, sounds similar to one heard in Brooklyn, with its "dem," "dese," and "dose." For example, if you win praise from a friend, you might hear, "Dere ya go!"

"One thing about the dialect of New Orleans is, it has the characteristics of other urban areas that developed by immigration," said Connie Eble, a New Orleans native and professor of English at the University of North Carolina.

David Barry, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the various dialects typically fell into one of two categories -- the aristocratic accent of St. Charles Avenue and the working-class chatter of the 9th Ward, or "Nint' Ward" in y'at-speak.

"Much of it is established by social and economic order," Barry said. "But on those levels, both black and white speakers share a close accent."

When many locals have questions, they "ax" them.

They have "kitchen zinks."

They put "earl" in the engines of their cars.

Though locals take the way they talk for granted, they recognize that it's distinctive, said Benny Grunch, whose CD, "The 12 Yats of Christmas," is a perennial hit here.

"It's not just the accent; it's the way we talk," Grunch said. "Don't nobody here say, 'Big Easy.' Don't nobody say, 'New Orleens,' either. We say, 'Nu Orlans.' And don't nobody say, 'beignets.' That's touristy. You just say French Market doughnuts."

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