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Way down yonder in ... N'awlans.

? Online Giving for Katrina |


| Why run from the word "refugee?" ?

September 03, 2005

Way down yonder in ... N'awlans.

Stephen Baker

As the tragedy unfolds, the entire world is getting a tutorial on how to pronounce New Orleans. It's N'awlans.

My question is this: Do we all have to pronounce everything the way the locals say it? Should we all learn how to say New Yawk, Phuladelphia, Balmor?

Until now, pronouncing N'awlans correctly was a signal to others that the speaker had more than a passing acquaintance with the Big Easy. But I guess that's the point: We're all learning about the city now, from the engineering of the levees and the low-lying parishes to the horrific suffering of its people and, yes, the way to pronounce the place.

The old song not only botches the pronunciation, but rhymes it in a verse that's so wrong at this stage it's poignant:

It's the garden of Eden, you know what I mean...

Way down yonder in New Orleans.

10:06 AM

Weekend Rant

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Good rant, Stephen. Get it off your chest while the editor's away. For my part, I always thought it was Noo Orluns ~ too much Blues, I guess. To some extent the locals always influence the pronunciation of a place. There's a town in Wales called : llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. The locals call it, LPG. Who can argue with that?

Posted by: John (SYNTAGMA) at September 3, 2005 12:01 PM

At work we don't even pronounce anymore, we either say N.O or NOLA- NOLA is preferred really.

Posted by: Dawn at September 3, 2005 12:13 PM

Do spell-checkers pick it up if you spell llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch with 10 l's instead of 11?

Posted by: steve baker at September 3, 2005 03:29 PM

"Do we all have to pronounce everything the way the locals say it?"

To the contrary, we absolutely must not do so, neither in this case nor in others.

Zeroing in on the specific case of New Orleans we are first confronted by the fact that this name itself is an anglicization of "La Nouvelle-Orl?ans" which is still the current local usage in French.

So right away all us English-speakers, including those who say "N'awlans" are NOT pronouncing it as the original locals do...

But even within the context of English, trying to pronounce things as you think "the locals" do is likely to make you look silly one way or another.

The first way it will make you look silly is because all the rest of the words coming out of your mouth won't match-up with that local pronunciation of the city name. Fuhgeddabouddit! If it's not "you" to talk that way, don't do it. Better to just 'be who you are,' an out-of-towner.

The second way that adopting a local accent can make you look silly is that you don't know the depth of cultural meaning behind the various local accents. That is especially so in this New Orleans case:

"N'awlans" is, let's face it, a gross mispronunciation of the words "New" and "Orleans." This usage is a statement of the speaker's culture, class, and family background more than a statement of their regionality.

There are plenty of people from the Crescent City who say "New Orleans" syllable-by-syllable, fine-as-you-please, and who are just as "local" as any of their neighbors from another part of town who say the name of their hometown differently.

The same applies to New Yorkers. The classic "New York accent" may be a Brooklyn accent or it may be a Queens accent or it may be a Bronx accent -- but it is clearly not the accent of a million-or-more Manhattanites whose families have been in New York for generations and who would never, ever speak with any of those so-called "New York" accents.

Just as we Americans do not say "Pahree" when speaking of the capital city of France (that's France: not Fhraw(n)se as the French say)...

..., and just as we prefer to say "China" instead of the Chinese word for their country -- which is, believe it or not "Zhongguo" - !!... we should all pronounce "New Orleans" exactly as it is spelled -- unless there is something in our personal background that twists our tongue involuntarily in another direction.


(by the way, I'm originally from Milwaukee, so I can go ahead and say "M'wawkee." You auslanders however would be wise to stick with "Mil-WALK-ee" at all times!)

Posted by: Nombert DePluume at September 3, 2005 06:41 PM

I was born and reared in New Orleans- when all that N'Awlans stuff started I just laughed. Anyone who pronounces it that way has read too many tee shirts! You don't drop the New part. The Awluns part is pretty close. My family always said New Or-luns. But never N'Awlans!

Posted by: Lynn at September 6, 2005 09:59 PM

Every time I visit New Orleans I make a point to ask various locals how they pronounce the name. No one has ever replied "Nawlins" or even "N'awlins". Without exception everyone clearly pronounces "New" as a distinct word but they vary on the second word, Orleans. I have heard "Orlunz" "awlins" "Orlenz" and other subtle variations.

Based on this (admitedly limited) empirical evidence I believe the popular idea of a correct "Nawlins" pronuniciation is a myth or at least greatly overstaed. The locals themselves are not particularly consistent, other than the "New" part.

Posted by: Sam at September 26, 2005 09:54 PM

It's pronounced: "New (noo)Orleans(Awl-ee-enz)in gentilly, the east, and 9th ward. More people should say it this way. To most of your dislike, there is no official way to say, "New Orleans." Don't think that Mayor Nagin will make anything official about it either. Does anybody agree with this pronunciation.

Posted by: gentilly prospect at October 28, 2005 12:13 AM

It varies depending on which part of the city you're from, but no native I know has ever said "N'awlins". I personally find it insulting when non-natives think they have "mastered" the pronunciation by saying it that way.

Posted by: Creole Royalty at January 9, 2006 11:58 PM

A belated concurrence with the preceding couple of comments. In 30-plus years in New Orleans I've never heard any local -- black, white, uptown, downtown, east bank, west bank -- use the tourist pronunciation "NAW-linz" or the singer/songwriter pronunciation "noo-or-LEENZ."

Posted by: Dan at May 29, 2006 11:54 AM

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