Felice Coles

University of Mississippi


The Authenticity of Dialect: Real Isleños Speak Yat, Too

The Isleño dialect of Spanish is a dying language spoken fluently by less than 1500 descendents of Canary Island recruits sent in 1778 to populate the southeastern marshlands of Louisiana. Their ethnic enclave has been approached by the a suburb of New Orleans where a dialect of American English called "Yat" originated in the early 1900s when Irish and Italian immigrants brought as construction workers and laborers commingled with German- and French-heritage residents in the eastern neighborhoods outside the core of the old city. Dillard (1985) believes that port or fishing employment established the Yat dialect in New Orleans, and Isleños, whose primary employment was fishing and trapping, easily interacted with these speakers when they engaged in selling their catches in the markets around New Orleans. Thus, Isleño speakers acquired Yat as their own American English dialect in addition to keeping Isleño Spanish as the language of in-group communication. This study focuses on the choice of code for Isleños: if they have any proficiency in Isleño Spanish they cling to that "rural, popular, archaic" variety (Lipski 1990) inside the enclave but also employ Yat for everyday communication in English. Both dialects are characterized as uneducated accents spoken by proud, fun-loving people (Starnes 1994) of working-class immigrant backgrounds. Thus, Isleños are doubly marked for ethnicity and social class: they speak a nonstandard dialect of Spanish when they are able and a nonstandard dialect of English otherwise. However, the covert prestige of these two dialects means that group membership in the Isleño community is positively evaluated by both its ancestral Spanish origin and its social and regional affiliation with Yat of New Orleans. Yat speakers consider themselves long-time residents of New Orleans, authentic Orleanians without pretensions of social climbing. "Good, down-to-earth people" and "regular folks" are identifications which allow Yat speakers to believe that their dialect embodies the good qualities of their community (Starnes 1994). Because "authentic" Isleños can no longer rely solely on use of Isleño Spanish as a marker of identity, their methods of authenticating a "real" Isleño now extends to length of residence in the older New Orleans neighborhoods where Yat is spoken. The connotation of authenticity surrounding Yat also allows Isleños who are only passively bilingual or "rememberers" (Lestrade 2002) in Isleño Spanish but who speak Yat as their native dialect of English to feel pride as in-group members despite their lack of proficiency in Spanish.

Dillard, J. L. 1985. Language and linguistic research in Louisiana. Pp. 1-42 in Nicholas Spitzer (ed.) Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to
    the State. Baton Rouge: Moran Colographics, Inc.
Lestrade, Patricia. 2002. The continuing decline of Isleño Spanish in Louisiana. Southwest Journal of Linguistics 21:99-117.
Lipski, John M. 1990. The Language of the Isleños: Vestigial Spanish in Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Starnes, Mary. 1994. Attitudes toward Yat dialect speakers in New Orleans, Louisiana. Pp. 21-32 in Linda DePascual, et al.
    (eds.) New Orleans Neighborhood Talk. New Orleans: Loyola University of New Orleans.