With its buoyant jazz beats, flamboyant Carnival floats, and piquant Creole dishes, the Big Easy has long been celebrated for its sensory exuberance. Yet some of the distinctive sounds of New Orleans — the linguistic cadences that reflect the city’s multicultural heritage — are slowly softening and even falling into silence. And at the epicenter of that loss is Hurricane Katrina.

“You can’t talk about life in New Orleans without talking about Katrina,” says linguist Katie Carmichael, an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech. “It changed the trajectory of the city forever. People were forced to evacuate, and different ethnicities and groups dispersed. As the city embarked on its long road to recovery, it was forced to redefine itself.”

Carmichael focuses her research on linguistic changes that have occurred in the aftermath of the storm. And now, with a National Science Foundation grant she shares with Tulane University collaborator Nathalie Dajko, she is defining the effects that displacement and migration have had on language spoken in the city.

“The storm stirred up issues of gentrification, displacement, globalization, racial tension, social class, and politics,” Carmichael says. “It’s as if Katrina shook the city up and then set it back down, forcing people to confront these issues quickly. We’re now working against the clock to capture the corresponding linguistic changes.”

Carmichael and Dajko are interviewing 200 lifelong residents of different ethnic backgrounds and neighborhood origins to collect the largest and most diverse data sample ever assembled in the city. They’re also working with a team of undergraduate researchers from both Virginia Tech and Tulane to analyze those data.

“Social pressures affect languages everywhere,” Carmichael says, “but the hurricane accelerated those social pressures in New Orleans, so we can detect linguistic changes in real time.”

As part of their work, research team members are asking New Orleanians to characterize their language in their own words and to describe how different phrases and ways of speaking relate to their personal identities. Their narratives will be featured on a website.

Carmichael adds that everyone they interview shares a Katrina story.

“We hear the most heart-wrenching stories of people wading through floodwaters and losing family members,” Carmichael says. “Everyone down there has experienced deep, deep loss. It’s part of who they are now.”

Written by Paula Byron as part of the “Missing Persons” feature in Illumination 2018–2019