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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

N'Awlins, or not? 

Along with some Alice Whitehead cookies, some Camellia red beans and some Zatarain's Creole mustard, my mom brought up a copy of Lolis Eric Elie's column from The Times-Picayune.

In the column, Elie starts off with something I can identify with:
I don't sound like I'm from New Orleans.

I am certain of this because I have the testimony of experts.

Whenever I travel, people ask me where I'm from. When I tell them I was born and raised in New Orleans, they look at me as if I have just told a lie of epic proportions.

"No, you're not!" they exclaim. "You don't even pronounce it right! It's Noo Awlins."

Then they repeat their pronunciation slowly as if I were reading their lips: "Noo Awlins."

How should I respond to this?

Sometimes I articulate all three syllables: "Or-lay-ons," sort of in the French style. Sometimes I say "Awlins," but apparently not to the satisfaction of a new convert to the Creole-Cajun-Mardi Gras-Bourbon Street religion.

So I sometimes give in. "You're right," I'm tempted to say. "I'm really from Tokyo."
Elie goes on to pick out several pronuciations common on the streets and airwaves of New Orleans -- New Awlins, New Or-lay-ons, New Awleens, New Oy-ins -- and that doesn't even get to the much maligned Yat variation that clips away most of the first word: N’Awlins. (Note: Orléans (as in French) is the name of the parish, never the name of the city except when being forced into a rhyme, such as "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” which was written by Eddie De Lange, a New Yorker, so it's still wrong.)

[ASIDE:The Southern Yat Hysterical Society's "Bonics (Yat dialect) page is a bit overly broad in claiming some general New Orleans terms as being Yat, but it did remind me of a few terms I hadn't heard in a decade, such as: "shoot da shoot (v): What you do when you go down the covered slide at the park. Also refers to the slide itself, which resembles a sort of covered wagon with a long silver tongue. It is not recommended that anyone wearing shorts use the slides."]

I'm not from New Orleans, but my mother is from there and my father is from just across the parish line in Metairie, and I spent most of childhood from age 5 onwards on the North Shore of Lake Pontichartrain with plenty of visits to "The City" (as if there could be any city other than New Orleans). My mother tends to pronounce New Orleans primarily as nu: 'ɔɪɛ̃s (New Oy-ins), although it can vary depending upon the the sentance it's being used in. For the most part I retain a bit of the r and the l, pronouncing things more closely to nu: 'ɔ:rlɛ̃s (New Or-lins).

The funny thing is that the next-door neighbor who pointed the column out to my mother always knew my mom pronuced The City's name differently from how she did, but until seeing the Elie's column, she couldn't figure out how to spell my mother's pronunciation.

To go back to the column:
I point out these varying pronunciations primarily for the benefit of the good people visiting our city from the far corners of the American republic.

We New Orleanians are a varied race. We come in a variety of hues, inclinations and pronunciations.

We intend to nurture those things that make us different from you Americans, and even from one another, for years to come.

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