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The Language of Katrina; Hurricanes Stir Up More Than Wind and Water

(NASA via AP)

When hurricanes hit, they displace a lot of people, some for a few days, a few months, sometimes forever. Afterward, it’s easy to see the physical destruction in their wake, but something less obvious may also be destroyed when the wind and water force people to leave their homes.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, killing some 2,000 people and displacing tens of thousands more. The most destructive and costly hurricane in U. S. history, so far, scattered many residents of New Orleans to the four winds. 

They couldn’t take a lot with them when they fled, but one thing that always goes with you is your language, your accent or dialect.  And those things speak volumes about you. “People draw connections between (your) ways of speaking and what type of person you are,” says Katie Carmichael, an English Professor at Virginia Tech.  “And this can be in both good ways and bad ways, so for example one of the things I study is how we connect language use to our identity, how we use it to express something about ourselves.”

Carmichael is studying how the patois of New Orleanians has changed after the advent of Katrina, where for ages, you could be identified by the district ward or you came from just by opening your mouth.

Carmichael says “there are studies that show we don’t need to see somebody to know tons of things about them, like their age, their gender, their ethnicity, all we need is their voice.” 

Carmichael says she’s always been interested in how language shapes culture and culture, language.  There aren’t many studies on the topic because, normally, people move in and out of regions randomly, at different times, different ages and for different reasons.  But with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina she says “everyone experienced this moment of displacement at the exact same time. And it happened to everybody. Everybody (in the region) has this experience of Katrina, even if they’re back, they had this displacement experience for a certain amount of time and some of these forces are powerful in a lot of cities, we see this across the U.S., gentrification for example. But, in New Orleans with Katrina, we’re seeing it at an accelerated rate which means we can put a microscope to it to see how these processes play out in terms of these local forms of identity, these intersectional components of identity, and how does that get expressed linguistically.  

Carmichael has a four year grant from the National Science Foundation to document changes in speech, which she says has a variety of unique qualities like no other place in the country.

They're listening to voices recorded in the 1980s.  Carmichael and her colleagues are recording hundreds more for their study, documenting in the human voice, the effects disaster related displacement is having on language.

“It’s only going to escalate over time. We are at an all-time high for migration and movement around the planet. We also have a lot of natural disasters that are escalating in strength and in effect, though what we find with hurricane Katrina is only going to become more relevant as we move forward.”

Carmichael reminds us, that people tend to talk like their peers. When your peer group changes, it follows, so do your speech patterns.

(Music/ Fats Domino/ “I’m Walking to New Orleans”)

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.