O Canada! in New Orleans

LouisiCANADA“I’m so New Orleans, when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian.”

A joke, right? No, it seems that, contrary to all expectations, a certain Canadian pronunciation is beginning to emerge in the Big Easy.

I heard about it in a talk by Katie Carmichael of Virginia Tech at the annual gathering of linguists this month in Portland, Ore. She found “when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian” on Facebook, together with this response: “most people don’t come out and say, ‘are you canadian’ — it’s usually ‘… where are you from? ‘ and I reflect on my last sentence, realize that it included the words out, about, or house, and say, you think I’m canadian, don’t you?’”

In 2012 Carmichael spent nearly a year researching the speech of her native New Orleans, focusing her 57 interviews on the conservative St. Bernard Parish and its town of Chalmette. Most of the pronunciations that have made New Orleans distinctive have been gradually fading, she knew, with St. Bernard being most likely to keep the older pronunciations. But that parish also was where she heard the new sound, known to linguists as “Canadian raising.”

Canadian raising involves the diphthong spelled ou when followed by a voiceless consonant.  (A diphthong is a two-vowel combination functioning as a unit.) It’s used in words  ending in t, like out, about, and pout, and in words ending with voiceless s, like house and mouse. (But not the verb to house, because that ends with a voiced z sound.)  It’s called raising because the tongue is raised at the start of the diphthong. There’s no good way to show this with conventional spelling, but I’ll try: Instead of the usual “ah-oo” of the diphthong, the tongue is raised to begin with so it comes out as “uh-oo.” It’s often spelled oo.

This diphthong raising is widespread in Canada and has become known there, and in the United States as a marker of identity for Canadians. Its significance is reflected in the 1995 movie Canadian Bacon, a comedy about the United States invading Canada. John Candy, portraying a Canadian, responds to Bill Murray, an invading American soldier, by saying “Get oot.” To which Murray replies, “We have ways of making you pronounce the word out.”

Carmichael found examples of this Canadian raising in the speech of eight of the speakers she recorded. They were younger ones, an indication that Canadian raising is a growing phenomenon in the Crescent City.

But how did this come about? The answer is not clear. A few other areas in the United States, most notably Charleston and Virginia, have some Canadian raising, but there’s no reason those places should suddenly have become a model for New Orleans. And there’s certainly no sign of a huge migration from Canada to New Orleans in recent years; the last such migration was when the French-speaking Cajuns were kicked out of Canada in the 18th century.

Maybe it’s one of those random effects caused by a butterfly flapping its wings just as a resident of Chalmette was about to say “I’m going out of the house.” Or maybe there’s a more probable explanation. Carmichael is working on it.


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