In Greater New Orleans, there is an enregistered (Agha 2003) dialect of English that sounds similar to New York City English, making it stand out within the linguistic landscape of the American South. This dialect is associated with the white, working class residents of New Orleans, and is imbued with the sorts of low status, high solidarity associations so many nonstandard regional dialects possess—speakers are framed as “uneducated” and “lazy,” but also “fun-loving” (Greenfield 1994; Starnes 1994; Coles 1997). Examining commercial and parodic memes circulating on the Internet reveals a pattern to the negative versus positive framing of this dialect, as certain residents of Greater New Orleans who are regarded as peripheral both linguistically and geographically are denied claims to an authentic New Orleans identity.
When I arrived in New Orleans in 2012 to complete my dissertation fieldwork on this dialect, I was told I wouldn’t hear the accent within city limits. Rather, I should go to Chalmette, a working class suburb located just South of New Orleans on a strip of land nestled between the Mississippi River and the infamous MR-GO Canal. Silverstein (2013) notes similar perceptions throughout the U.S. as “people increasingly see the local ‘dialect’ or ‘accent’ or ‘patois’ as coming from the peripheries of urban cores.” Silverstein attributes this patterning to class-stratified geographic distribution. And indeed, the reputation of Chalmette within Greater New Orleans is that of a lower-class, undesirable locale, which can be seen in the parodic, judgmental maps such as the one in which the Chalmette area features the largest font label, reading simply: White Trash.
Other derogatory visual memes dismiss Chalmette’s residents as unworthy of membership in the broader New Orleans region. A parody of Disney’s The Lion King highlights Chalmette’s peripherality—it is outside the “kingdom,” and even possibly dangerous (“shadowy place”).
These disdainful views of Chalmette are no secret to Chalmette residents, who are sometimes referred to by the derogatory label “Chalmatians” (which is noticeably evocative of a breed of dog). While the term has been reclaimed to some extent by residents, self-identified Chalmatian JuAllison (a pseudonym) notes, “people do use it in a sense to be ignorant and mean and ugly—and it’s the people who have never stepped foot in Chalmette.”
Since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas, there has been increased emphasis on expressing authentic claims to the city. Indeed, the hashtag #imsoneworleans circulated on the Internet in Summer 2014, accompanied by nostalgic references to pre-Katrina businesses, traditions, and language practices. While part of this “nostalgia culture” predates Katrina, some of this performative remembering seems directly related to the influx of transplants that settled in New Orleans after the storm. Put in terms of Bucholtz & Hall’s (2005) sociocultural framework: lifelong residents of the city distinguish themselves from these transplants, and authenticate themselves as New Orleanians, by displaying their insider knowledge of traditional practices—including language use. The traditional New Orleans accent is intrinsically linked to local imaginings of pre-Katrina New Orleans, and indexes long-term ties to the city. Through performance of the local dialect, long-term residents are able to assert their authentic claims to New Orleans, in contrast with newcomer populations. As in Pittsburgh (Johnstone et al 2006; Johnstone 2009, Johnstone 2013) and New York City (Becker 2009, Becker 2014), some of this performance comes through the display of tee-shirts and other merchandise that commodifies the white, working class dialect. Of these goods, Schoux Casey (2013) writes, “New Orleans language-decorated merchandise functions as both a symbol of local pride and insider knowledge, and as a nostalgic emblem of localness.”
Despite the local dialect’s recent valorization—both in ideological terms and in the literal assignment of dollar value—when these same linguistic features are uttered by Chalmette residents, they are treated as undesirable and outside the norm. An example of this “othering” comes from the Tumblr post below, which features Full House character Michelle Tanner making a face of teasing perplexity, implicitly directed at an incomprehensible Chalmette resident.
In this meme, the listener cannot understand what is being said, but it is the Chalmatian who is framed as carrying the “communicative burden” (Lippi-Green 1997). Another meme that circulated on Facebook in Spring 2015 builds on this idea by framing the Chalmatian accent as a foreign language that must be mastered through intensive study, using language-learning software such as Rosetta Stone.
This meme denaturalizes (Bucholtz & Hall 2005) Chalmette residents’ claims to local language by treating their linguistic practices as outside of the acceptable range of speech patterns—a foreign language, even. In stark contrast with celebratory memes (e.g. #imsoneworleans, tee-shirts) that link local linguistic features to the city of New Orleans, these same features are framed as unintelligible when linked to Chalmatians. Despite the general nostalgia for locally marked linguistic features that root the speaker within a linguistic and cultural history specific to New Orleans, such features are not highly regarded when encountered in everyday contemporary speech from socially and geographically peripheral members of the speech community (cf Silverstein 2013).
As it becomes increasingly common in Post-Katrina New Orleans to embrace the local sayings and traditions deemed most “authentic,” it is worth acknowledging the power structures that are at play when evaluating these behaviors in various contexts. The visual memes presented above, when considered alongside more positively evaluated uses of local language, demonstrate some of the ways that residents of Greater New Orleans authenticate and denaturalize the use of local linguistic features. Viewed as peripheral members of the region as well as the speech community, Chalmette residents are consistently denied their claims to being authentic ratified New Orleanians, even as their speech patterns reflect the traditional local linguistic features so treasured (Carmichael 2014). The patterns of marginalization and othering seen in memes about Chalmette and Chalmatian ways of speaking demonstrate how the (social, geographic, and linguistic) peripherality of certain groups can undermine their claims even to their own language practices.
Katie Carmichael is an assistant professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
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