Ten years ago I left for college. For the eighteen years before that, I lived in New Orleans and traveled almost exclusively between San Antonio and Orlando, where my grandparents lived. The only exceptions were family trips to New Mexico, San Francisco, and Washington DC, the first of which left only fuzzy memories. Until high school, I had almost no concept of life outside the South, so much so that when I went to soccer camp in South Carolina one summer, I asked whether or not we would need sweaters – it is quite a ways north of New Orleans.
But I wasn’t your typical New Orleanian. Both my parents were transplants to the city, they raised my brothers and me vegetarian, and we we rarely listened to local music growing up. I don’t speak with any noticeable accent, nor have I ever been in a Mardi Gras parade.
Yet when I arrived at college, I found that there were two things that made me more interesting than your average freshman: I was ambiguously brown and widely confused for Indian, Asian, and various other ethnicities, and I was from New Orleans. People were interested in my hometown, and I seized on it. This is what we eat, I told them. This is the kind of music we listen to. This is the kind of people we are. It was an identity that I could use to define myself. It didn’t matter whether or not I actually fit the mold.
Not much resulted from this, of course. I was who I was, and I’m sure everyone figured that out eventually. The only thing I regret is correcting my roommate’s pronunciation of “New Orleans.” He was a fan of Confederacy of Dunces, and I guess I had to claim my territory. At some point I let him know that in New Orleans we said “New Orlins” not “New Orleens.”
Little did I know I was acting like a stereotypical New Orleanian – apparently we are very personal about how certain words are pronounced. Take this video for example:
The woman is admittedly a transplant to the area, but she has bought into the city’s exoticism. It doesn’t matter that we pronounce every other word in the language almost identically with everyone else; what matters is that we have several dozen words with weird pronunciations.
Nor does she mention what I eventually realized: In almost every song about New Orleans, it gets pronounced “New Orleens.” Remember all those famous songs about New Orleans? Well, apparently they’re saying it wrong. The only guys who get it “right” are Fats Domino in “Walking to New Orleans” and Art Neville in “Mardi Gras Mambo” (and Neville only gets it “right” the first time).
In fact, there are at least five different ways to pronounce “New Orleans.” There are the four she notes – 1. New ORE lins 2. New or LEENS 3. NWOR lins (which eventually develops into the ‘Nawlins’ many are familiar with) 4. New OIL leans (which I’ve never heard anyone say) – and there is a fifth, New ORE lee-ins, where some expand the syllables from three to four. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.
The different pronunciations mirror the “narrative of exceptionalism” detailed by Tulane professor Richard Campanella in his article “New Fuel for an Old Narrative: Notes on the BP Oil Disaster.” Geographically speaking, the Mississippi River delta is one of the most exceptional areas in the world. Culturally, our origins are different too, but like everywhere else in America, we’ve been homogenized to a significant extent. The voices of exceptionalism still echo loudly in the narrative of the city, and the pronunciation of the name of the city is just one example of its insistence. Campanella notes:
While they allow that some distinctiveness has disappeared (the French language, for example, is largely extinct from New Orleans, although it persists in the Acadian region), advocates of the exceptionalist narrative view the greater New Orleans area as a place with its heart still in the Franco-Afro-Caribbean world from which it spawned, resigned only reluctantly to its American fate. They see evidence for New Orleans’ uniqueness in everything from music and food to attitudes, race relations, linguistics, architecture and politics. The narrative is an article of faith here; it forms the bedrock of local civic pride, and merely questioning it can earn responses of consternation and reproach. Exceptionlists’ predisposition toward reading distinctiveness in all things related to New Orleans reinforces their stance that the city is axiomatically sui generis.
No place can be entirely generic. Surely every city has its defining features. But let our exceptionalism be one of specificity, not of generic, overarching narrative. Untapped New Orleans is my attempt to share that specificity, and also an attempt to better educate myself. Our central concerns will be the same as those of Untapped New York – the secrets of the city.