Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How they Talk in Houma: A Hillbilly's Observations

I've spent most of my life in places where people talk funny. And I like it that way, because I talk funny myself. I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, which is why I sound like Bill Clinton or Billy Bob Thornton. After high school, I went on an unplanned tour of interesting North American accents. I spent a year in New Orleans, which is the only place in the south with an accent that could be mistaken for Brooklyn's. Later I spent two years in Newfoundland, where people sound like Popeye...if Popeye were Irish. For the last four years I've lived in Cajun country in Houma, Louisiana. Now I'm about to move to Colorado, which, for all it's natural beauty, is sadly lacking in non-standard dialects. They sound like newscasters out there, and the only linguistic spice is the occasional "y'all".

I always wished I had written down some of my favorite dialectical quirks from Newfoundland, because now I've forgotten most of them. I don't want to make the same mistake again, so before I leave I want to write about how people here talk.

But don't get me wrong. The last thing I'm trying to do is make fun of anybody. Nobody from Clinton, Arkansas, who occasionally says "dadgum" and "cain't" without a trace of irony, can afford to make fun of anybody else's dialect. Unless they make fun of mine first, and then it's on (I'm looking at you, Chicago and Boston.)

I love dialects, and it would be a dreary old world if everybody in it talked like Peter Jennings. Besides, while many educated people think regional dialects are a sort of degraded version of the language...they're wrong. Professional linguists will tell you that the "proper" form of a language is just as arbitrary as any of its dialects. The standardized version is useful and good to learn, but it's not the "real" version, any more than a Red Delicious is the "real" version of an apple. Every dialect has its own grammatical rules, and they're just as complex as the standard version. That means people who think of regional dialects as ignorant, degraded forms of the language are actually displaying their own ignorance about how language works. As someone who grew up speaking a widely-disparaged form of English, that strikes me as the sweetest of ironies.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, how do people in Houma talk? You might think they would have a stereotypical Cajun accent where dey talk like dis, but most of them don't. You mostly hear that "flat" accent "way down da bayuh"; not here in town. Houma's accent is actually tough to describe. To my foreign ears, it sounds sort of like a cross between the Cajun accent and the New Orleans "Brooklyn" accent known as "Yat". For example, people here pronounce words like "water" as "watuh". Not "watah", as Scarlett O'Hara might say, but "watuh", as someone in pre-hipster Brooklyn might say. There are also some distinctive pronunciations. "Crawfish boil" becomes "crawfish ball". Mayonnaise is "mannazz". "Room" is "rum".

As in New Orleans, "y'all" works differently in Houma than the rest of the south. For example, one of my coworkers just asked me, "What's y'all password for this computer?" Being from Arkansas, I know that should be "What's y'all's password?" But she won't listen to me. At least people here know there's no such thing as a singular y'all. Only a Yankee would call one person "y'all." In the southern dialect, that's just bad grammar.

Another word with different rules in Houma is "fuss". In Arkansas, if you do something stupid you get fussed AT, but here you just get fussed. It's a much more focused fussing.

The dialect in Louisiana can change from one town or bayou to the next. In Thibodaux, just 20 miles north of here, if someone is embarrassed they're "haunt." But they only seem to get haunt in Thibodaux. People in Houma just seem to get embarrassed (though not very often.) Cajun French changes over short distances, too. I can't speak French, but I know that a werewolf is a loup garou in some parts of Louisiana, but a rougarou in Houma. They even have a Rougarou Festival here. You should go sometime; it's fun.

There are a few other Cajun French words still floating around. Stinkbugs are "peunez". The pretty yellow flowers that blanket the fields here in spring are called "Pis au lit", which can be politely translated as "wet the bed." Apparently that's what you will do if you eat them. When people see babies and puppies here, they squeal, "Ah, cher!" But it's pronounced "shah", and lots of people even spell it that way. Another quirk you can see even in writing is that people leave off the "ed" in words like "canned" and "boiled". That's why the grocery store down the street has a "Can Soup" aisle, and you can buy "Boil Shrimp" all over town.

Finally, some phrases in Houma have a unique syntax. People here don't say, "I've known him for years" but "I been knowing him for years." They don't say, "We went to eat", but simply,"We went eat." When I walk my dog most places, people say, "What kind of dog is that." Here it's "What kind of dog that is?" It's not "When did you go to Baton Rouge?" but "When you went to Baton Rouge?"

People in Louisiana are know for being easy-going and fun-loving, and for good reason. In my four years here, I'm not sure I've ever met an uptight Cajun. It's a cliche to say the culture and language here is as flavorful as the food, but that's because it's true. It's a flavor I'm going to miss.