I like to think that I come from the Gershwin school of pronunciations, as in “You like ‘to-may-toes’ and I like ‘to-mah-toes’.” But I have to admit I did ask my daughter-in-law to stop saying New Or-leens. For me, it’s the equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard.
I couldn’t really blame her. “New Or-leens” is what most people say because its most often sung that way. Probably because it has better rhyming capability as in “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”
Pronunciations in New Orleans can be tricky. Take street names, for instance.
Tchoupitoulas Street, home of the legendary Tipitina’s club, looks daunting until you know to start it by saying “chop.” Other streets are harder than they look. Carondelet is pronounced with an “et” at the end. Chartres is “Charters.” Even the seemingly easy Burgundy Street ain’t said right unless you accent the “gun.” Here’s a short video on street pronunciations, featuring Soul Rebel drummers Derrick Moss and Lumar Leblanc.
But back to saying “New Orleans”, even natives will say it differently because of the variety of accents that reside in the city. In the 60’s when I was an altar boy for an itinerant priest, we had a gig at St. Alphonsus Church on Constance Street in the Irish Channel. Having never been in the neighborhood before, I remember how shocked I was to hear the other altar boys sound like Bobby Kennedy. And I lived only three miles away.
Then there is “Yat” — considered a unique New Orleans dialect and accent, popularized in the novel, Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The accent “is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island” according to A.J. Liebling author of “The Earl of Louisiana” and quoted in Confederacy of Dunces.
Ray Blount, Jr. in his ode to New Orleans (Feet on the Street) notes that the typical New Orleans accent is particularly noticeable with the word “quarter” as in “French Quarter” (or two bits). “It comes closer to rhyming with ‘porter’ than with ‘garter,’ but it’s more ‘Quo-tah,’ with an ‘o’ sound that’s semi-extended, as if you’re saying ‘oar’ or ‘o’er’ more like it, but not finishing off the ‘r’ sound.”
What were we talking about, oh yea, how to pronounce New Orleans. Oh hell say it, or sing it, the way you want. For me, I prefer extending the “w” into the second syllable as in “Nu-Wah-Lens the way Lil Queenie does it when she sings “My Darlin’ New Orleans.”
Just don’t say “Nawlins” unless you and your companions have downed too many Abitas.
HEAR ME MISPRONOUNCE ALL SORTS OF NEW ORLEANS WORDS ON SWEENEY’S GUMBO YAYA, MONDAY, 10 A.M. TO NOON (PST) ON KAOS, 89.3 FM