Katie Carmichael and Nathalie Dajko standing on a balcony in New Orleans

Where Y’at, Dawlin’?

Linguists Katie Carmichael and Nathalie Dajko are studying the New Orleans dialect. Deterred for a while by the pandemic, they plan to continue their quest to document, analyze — and share — what they’ve discovered about post-Katrina language variations.

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Above: Katie Carmichael, left, and Nathalie Dajko, right, find it a privilege to hear the stories of New Orleanians. (Photo by Zack Smith)

“New Orleanians are storytellers above all,” said Katie Carmichael (SLA ’07, ’08). “Everyone has a fascinating … and a particular story to share, so it’s a privilege to be the person who gets to be privy to all of these different experiences in the city.”
Carmichael and Nathalie Dajko (SLA ’05, ’09) are leading a National Science Foundation–funded project to explore the evolution of New Orleanians’ speech patterns.
Carmichael earned a BA with a double major in French and linguistics and a MA in linguistics from Tulane. Dajko received a MA and PhD in anthropology. Carmichael also went to The Ohio State University, where she obtained a PhD in linguistics. They met as students while conducting research projects on Louisiana French.

Carmichael is now an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, and Dajko is associate professor of anthropology at Tulane. They have been studying post–Hurricane Katrina sociolinguistics in New Orleans together for several years.

Since this New Orleans language project began in fall 2018, Carmichael and Dajko have interviewed about 100 people, with the goal of interviewing more than 200. The gathering of research data is suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, several preliminary findings have emerged from the data that has already been analyzed.

“How’s Ya Momma N’ Dem?”

Pre-pandemic, Dajko and Carmichael recruited participants any way they could: at festivals, at the store, at cultural centers and other venues where they could easily interact with community members.

Early analyses show that some of the traditional features of the New Orleans dialect are on the decline in everyday speech.

“Some of those iconic features that, for example, you can see on T-shirts in the city: ‘makin’ groceries,’ ‘How’s ya momma n’ dem?’ and other pronunciations as well, are starting to be used less and less,” Carmichael said.

The term often used to describe these features is “Yat,” a label for the White-working class accent that sounds to many like a Brooklyn, New York, accent.

An example of this can be heard in the word “darling.” Someone with a Yat accent pronounces the word “daw-lin,” essentially dropping the “r.” Linguists call this pronunciation non-rhoticity, or r-lessness.

Dajko said that from hourlong interviews with participants, she can generate hundreds, if not thousands, of contexts in which the “r” might be dropped. To hear these features, Carmichael and Dajko audio record interviews.Participants are asked about their lives and about living in the city. The researchers will also ask participants to read a passage with a targeted list of words and to take a survey about phrases and words they may use.

Some examples of targeted words and phrases are “Neutral ground” and “banquette” and “Does the store open for 8 o’clock or at 8 o’clock?”

Carmichael said that many younger participants don’t seem to speak with traditional “Yat” features.

It’s a normal process for some speech features to be used less over time, since language is always changing. Interestingly, in New Orleans the change may be happening at an accelerated rate.

One of the main possible factors for this accelerated rate is, of course, Hurricane Katrina, although it is not a sole catalyst, the researchers said.

“In our data, we see that the change was already in progress before Katrina, so people already were starting to shift away from these linguistic features,” Carmichael said.

Another possibility is that individuals became more aware of the language features while they were displaced because of the storm.

“We have a lot of stories of people saying things like, ‘I never knew I had an accent until the storm.’ ‘I never realized I talked a specific way until I came in contact with somebody who pointed it out to me,’” Carmichael said.

Carmichael said that some New Orleanians may have become more aware of how they speak because of others’ judgments, sometimes negative, when their accent was heard.

“‘Well, I don’t want someone to think that way about me. I don’t want someone to listen harder to how I say something than what I’m saying.’ That’s what one of our participants said.”

Creole No More

In one task used to assess local perceptions about the distribution of certain accents across the city, participants are asked to circle areas on a map of the city where they think people have accents. There is much agreement that people in Chalmette have an accent, said Carmichael, as well as consensus that people Uptown talk “fancy.”

Often perceptions correspond to social factors.

“People will say things about how different neighborhoods speak differently from each other, and when you look up the demographics of those neighborhoods, you see they’re stratified according to social class or according to ethnicity,” Carmichael said.

To take a (recently famous) example, the speech of Metairie, Louisiana, native Amy Coney Barrett was challenged by listeners during her confirmation hearing for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. One New York podcaster asked on social media, “Why does Amy Coney Barrett have a faint, low-key Long Island accent?”

Since many traditional New Orleans English features are shared with the English spoken in New York City, it is perhaps unsurprising that those unfamiliar with the way New Orleanians speak would accuse Coney Barrett of affecting a “Long Island accent.” But as Carmichael and Dajko pointed out, social factors may intersect to play a role here.

Carmichael did not detect any specific features in Coney Barrett’s way of speaking when she listened to recordings of the confirmation hearing. “She’s White. She’s suburban. We know from our previous work that these factors can predict retention of traditional ‘New Yorky’ sounding features within Greater New Orleans. So it’s likely that this is what listeners are keying into, even if I am not hearing it.”

Dajko added, “She’s well-educated, so in most contexts in which we’re going to find her recorded, we’re going to hear something very standard.” That is, in more formal contexts speakers may minimize their use of nonstandard linguistic features, meaning that Coney Barrett’s use of local features could be quite subtle. What listeners might be tuning in to, Dajko noted, would require extensive analysis, but it’s just this kind of thing that the researchers are hoping to learn from the project.

Part of the researchers’ data collection process is that participants are asked to identify themselves ethnically. Participants in the study have primarily identified themselves with either White or Black ethnic groups, and results are showing that some aspects of their speech vary among the two groups.

“If you think about the communities that people interact with, and the individuals who are talking to each other, this may not be that surprising that you’re going to find a difference,” Carmichael said.

The Creole ethnic group that is specific to South Louisiana is of special interest to the researchers.

While the term has many definitions, Creole is often defined as someone who is multiracial, especially people who have French, Indigenous, African, Spanish, Portuguese or other diverse backgrounds in their family history. The descendants of free people of color in New Orleans have also been defined historically as Creole.

“There’s a reorganization of the social structure. So how do you express that you are from here? How do you express that this is who you are?”

NATHALIE DAJKO, associate professor of anthropology

“People very often tell us, ‘I was Creole growing up, but not anymore,’” Dajko said, clarifying that they now identify as Black.

Dajko said that the reason some respondents are moving away from the term Creole may be because of the unwanted association of divisions within the Black community.

Along with shifts in ethnic identification, the researchers’ data indicate that Creoles are shifting linguistically, too. According to Carmichael and Dajko, younger individuals who identify as Creole speak similarly to individuals who identify primarily as Black. 

These distinctions could in part be a way to hold on to one’s identity, particularly in a city where there have been seismic changes, for example, in both the school system — shifting to an all-charter system — and the neighborhoods post-Katrina.

“You see masses of people being replaced, leaving, not coming back, but also new people coming in,” Dajko said. “There’s reorganization of the social structure. So how do you express that you are from here? How do you express that this is who you are?”

Community Trust

The researchers face the challenge of research-fatigue in the city post-Katrina.

“There’s been so many studies in New Orleans that people do not want to talk to a researcher,” Carmichael said. “We’ve had to build trust in these communities. We’re not just swooping in and stealing your stories and making money off of it; we genuinely care about the people in these communities.”
Carmichael and Dajko plan to present data in a way that can be accessed, not just by other researchers, but anyone who is interested in New Orleans.

“We want to create more knowledge about New Orleans and New Orleans English,” Carmichael said.

They are creating an online database, including audio recordings and video clips of participants, as well as a list of lexical terms used in New Orleans and their meanings.

Beyond that, the researchers are still exploring possible methods to disseminate their data. The idea of giving presentations at local schools has come up.

“(We can) teach kids about linguistic diversity and ... that not speaking standard is not bad, that you don’t have to give up the way you speak to be a valuable person,” Dajko said. “The way you speak is a part of yourself, and you shouldn’t have to give that up to succeed in life.”

More interviews and data analysis are ahead for the two researchers once the COVID-19 pandemic ends. They did consider conducting interviews via Zoom (video conferencing technology) with recording equipment delivered to the participants. 

“The problem with that is we have no idea how that might affect the way people talk. We don’t know if people talk differently over Zoom than in person,” Carmichael said.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out to the community, Carmichael and Dajko are hopeful they will be able to return to in-person interviews soon.

For now, the researchers will continue processing the data with the help of undergraduate students at the Tulane Sociolinguistics Lab and the Virginia Tech Speech Lab, creating in the process a new generation of scholars of Louisiana’s rich linguistic diversity.


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