On the Hunt for the New Orleans Yat

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Some English dialects are so uncommon that they adopt the mythology of the Loch Ness Monster. One such dialect, unique the city of New Orleans, is locally referred to as Yat. It is renowned not because of how strange it sounds, but rather its familiarity: the accent bears more than a passing resemblance to New York City English.

This is no mere laymen’s observation. Owing perhaps to New Orleans’ history of immigration, the Yat accent shares with New York something called the tense-lax split. This means that the ‘short-a‘ is pronounced two ways: in certain words (like pat and cap) it is pronounced as in most other American accents. In other words (like pass and bad), it is pronounced more ‘tensely:’ this usually means the accent realizes this as a vowel closer to the ‘e‘ in ‘dress.’

But outside of this one feature, I’ve long been confused about what separates a ‘Yat’ accent from a non-‘Yat’ accent. My own impression is that New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu has some Yat features:

My problem with someone like Landrieu, however, is that it’s hard to separate ‘New Yorkey’ features from features of other American Southern Accents: both New York and many Southern drawls are non-rhotic, for example (the ‘r’ is dropped at the end of word like ‘car‘ and ‘butter‘).

This is complicated by the fact that the most notable feature of American Southern English, the monophthongization of the vowel in words like ‘time’ and ‘five’ (so they become ‘tahm‘ or ‘fahv‘) is still present in New Orleans accents. Regardless of how otherwise ‘New York’ this accent may be, it can still be classified as Southern.

Another example might be the late Saints’ announcer Buddy Diliberto:

It’s difficult to unpackage the features of Diliberto’s speech. He seems to have the tense-lax split, which would probably put him in the ‘Yat’ camp. But other features aren’t as cut and dried.

For example, Diliberto exhibits a more conservative pronunciation of the vowels in ‘goat’ and ‘goose’ than one might find in other Southern accents (these vowels are pronounced more back than they would in, say, Tennessee). Is this an indication of some kind of northern or New York influence? I would say no, as many other Louisiana accents also feature more conservative vowels of this type.

Then there’s the fact that, like New Yorkers, older Yats reportedly pronounce words like ‘nurse’ and ‘verse’ with a vowel that sounds to outsiders like ‘noys‘ and ‘voyse‘ (IPA əɪ). This would again seem to be a remarkable example of New York kinship … were it not for the fact that this pronunciation is common in many older Southern accents as well.

Although ‘Yats’ don’t figure prominently in mainstream popular culture, there are at least two famous Yat characters in literature. Ignatius J. Reilly, of John Kennedy Toole‘s A Confederacy of Dunces was famously a Yat, as is (presumably) Stanley Kowalski, the working-class husband of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The accent and culture clearly has place in the Southern imagination.

But my question remains: what separates a ‘Yat’ accent from other Louisiana accents? Is it a general impression of ‘New Yorkiness?’ Or is there something more specific that makes ‘Yat’ unique?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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15 Responses to On the Hunt for the New Orleans Yat

  1. M E Foley says:

    So…why is there an asterisk by the examples tahm and fahv? I was hoping it was going to take me to some kind of footnote where this idea was fleshed out, but if there is such a footnote, I can’t find it. I wanted to see that footnote because I speak with that same monophthongization and I’m darned tired of seeing that vowel sound spelled out as “ah”, when it is not an “ah”. I realize that our set of characters is restricted, but surely it would be better to refer, as is done here, to the monophthongization and put the “i” in bold type *and stop there*, rather than go on to say that these words are pronounced as tahm and fahv, when they’re generally not — not by my family and friends and neighbors, people from New Orleans and throughout Missiissippi and on up as far as Kentucky. The characteristic southern “I” is *not* an “ah”.

    Sigh.

    • trawicks says:

      That asterisk was a typo. I clarified with the laymen’s transcription because not everone knows what ‘monophthongization’ means. Also, ‘ah’ would be more appropriate in Lousiana than in Kentucky–it’s further back than in Kentucky.

  2. Paul Counts says:

    I shared the link to this blog post with some friends and these links are what came back.

    A variety of New Orleans accents from YEAH YOU RITE!

    Benny Grunch and the Bunch

    Bunny Matthews

  3. I just bought a book called “The YAT language of New Orleans – The Who DAT Nation – The true story- How it all began.” and it really told me a lot about my New Orleans accent. The book has a dictionary with YAT words and how they are used in a sentence. Believe me it is very funny to read about how I “Tawk.” It is certainly sounds like a Brooklyn accent. New Orleans is in the south, but isn’t a southern city by any standards.

    • Therese says:

      Yeah, you right, we not the South but the northernmost city of the Caribbean. ;)

      • Therese says:

        Also, my understanding is that Brooklynites /tɔk/ or even /tɔək/, whereas Yats /tɔʷk/. A small but noticeable difference.

        Prosaically, Yat is also quite different, different stress.. vocab of course quite different… I’ve also been hearing more pin/pen merge as well as I go back — obvious influence from our surrounding friends, e.g. Baton Rouge.

  4. Therese says:

    Yat is so terribly different from the rest of Louisiana accents that I as one whose father has a Yat accent and mother has a River Parish Creole accent must laugh — someone has obviously never been to LA. Comparing even a Yat with a NOLA uptowner is a stretch, or a Yat with, say, someone from Mandeville across the lake. And certainly comparing a Yat (almost predominately white) with any of the non-white New Orleanians — a black 9th Warder and a white 9th Warder will sound completely different, even as they share the same vocabulary and social upbringing.

  5. Rene A. Louviere Jr. says:

    Lissen, hawt, New Orleans native ‘ere, as wellasa amita linguis, an ah kin tell ya, dere is certinly a difference ya not seein between New Yok and N’Warlins accents. An to it’s the diffrins b’tween white Nint Wawdas and black Nint Wawdas reminz me mora dem people who like ta say dey Creole meanz dey all white. White ‘a’ Black da diffrinz is wunna emvasis and vocablyalerry dat makes it diffrint from New Yok. If ya think dat is jus da whites zu wenta Chalmette an aint dere no more then y’aint lookin back fawnuv. M’mama grew up in Nort Gentilly, m’ Grammaw in Sout’ Gentilly, M’ Granfatha on Banks ‘n’ Broad, and I grew up byda Lake. We all got Yat accens, it’s jus diffrin ones. An dat’s why I kin tellya whaer ya grew up, an probly whaeya wenna School, and prolbly wheaya Mama’nem wenna School.

    I can also put on the above accent when I feel like it, and take it off when I feel like it. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I can talk as if I’m from different parts of the city, and if I could, I could discuss the same linguistic topics in the accent or out of them. In fact, with the accent, I have a working inclusive second-person plural, a third person indefinite, and an aspect signifier for habitual action.

    Greetings from the Great Northern Capital of the Creole Carribean Empire, New Orleans.

    See ya onda Neutral Groun’, Hawt

  6. Martin Velez says:

    Don’t know how true this is, but I’ve heard that the “Y’at” accent(or at least that of the inner city) is actually closer to the New York accent than it is to the surrounding Gulf Southern accents, although it’s probable that some supposedly New Yorker features are actually just regular old Southern.

  7. d'mari says:

    Okay my family has roots in NOLA going back 200 years — I’ve lived in NYC, NJ, CA, AZ, WASH D.C., Europe and Central America — everyone in all of the above places thought I was from NY and/or Boston. And I liked that because those cities are vibrant, energetic and creative.

    The population in pockets of uptown NOLA neighborhoods historically speak southern –sometimes it seems almost “put on southern”. It is also the accent you hear from Hollywood portraying NOLA and it is absurd since it is the language of the minority. Hollywood does not always do its homework.

    Many of the uptown peoples ancestors came from the Carolinas and Virginia and came to NOLA as bankers, developers etc., they were Episcopalians, Presbyterians —early Americans/WASP i.e. they were established in the US before the hordes of immigrants came in the mid 19th century. They were significantly white collar, educated and spoke correctly even if they had southern accents typical of Virginians and Carolinians.

    Generally NOLA’s 7th, 8th and 9th ward and the Irish Channel (geographically uptown but not in speech or religion) were blue collar new immigrants –Catholic Irish, Italians, Germans — sharing neighborhood space with older non WASP immigrant groups i.e. French, Spanish and African Catholics.

    The YAT language is a product of people who in general were not WASP and English was their second language (most of famine Irish were from Ireland’s very poor west coast of Connaught and Gaelic was their primary language, not the Queen’s English language).

    Personally I am appalled at how dumb entertainment makes French Cajuns and Creoles sound—worse, when they confuse the two distinct cultures and accents. Many decades ago you could distinguish the two French accents in NOLA and there were more Louisiana people speaking French. However, if your family did not have French ancestry—chances were that you did not do the cher thing—another Hollywood cliche.

    As for north Louisiana and most southern states accents, I don’t understand what most of those people are saying and the 1830’s southern accents of those uptown WASP seems antiquated and/or out of place (except maybe at some of the old society social clubs) but what the heck it is amusing and these people are genteel. They are also not part of the majority —- the yats and the yat language and experience of greater NOLA, NYC and Boston.

  8. Keith B says:

    one question – how many “M”s are dere in “sammich”? i say two

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