You've probably heard New Orleans pronounced a half-dozen ways in songs, by movie characters, and by residents. If you're heading to the city in southeastern Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico and not sure exactly how you're supposed to refer to the place without embarrassing yourself, you'll want to consult the locals for how to say this city's name.
Nicknamed the "Big Easy," New Orleans is known for its vibrant live music and street performances, 24-hour nightlife scene, and its spicy Cajun cuisine; New Orleans is a melting pot of American, French, and African cultures and dialects.
Nicknamed the "Big Easy," New Orleans is "known for its round-the-clock nightlife, vibrant live-music scene and spicy, singular cuisine reflecting its history as a melting pot of French, African and American cultures," according to Google. But, that melting pot of dialects lends itself to variations on the pronunciation of the city's name -- making it difficult to know the correct way to say it. Indeed, it's helpful to first know of the many ways not to pronounce New Orleans.
The correct way to pronounce this city's name is "New Or-linz" (the Merriam-Webster dictionary phonetically spells it "ȯr-lē-ənz"). If you want people to understand you and treat you like a local, this is the way to pronounce it, though there are a few other variations that are acceptable as well.
You may have heard the name pronounced, "N'awlins," but that's more of a tourist thing to do—much like pronouncing Houston Street in New York City like the city in Texas instead of like "how-ston." You'll often hear this mispronunciation in period film and productions as this was only a popular pronunciation before the 1950s.
Louis Armstrong crooned "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans," pronouncing the last syllable with a hard "e" sound rather than a soft "i" sound. The same pronunciation has shown up in a number of songs before and since, but most locals don't consider this the proper way to say the city's name either—except when referencing the Orleans Parish, which shares a common boundary with New Orleans.
In an episode of the television show "The Simpsons," Marge took part in a musical adaptation of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the character Harry Shearer, a resident of New Orleans, jokingly pronounces the city with both a long "e" and soft "i" sound ("New Or-lee-inz"). Some of the longtime residents of the New Orleans do pronounce the city's name in a similar fashion ("Nyoo aw-lee-inz"), but this is still considered an incorrect pronunciation.
A Melting Pot of Languages in the Big Easy
Since New Orleans' history and culture is influenced largely by the settlers, native residents, and the servants that were brought to the city to help build and maintain it, the Big Easy is considered to be a melting pot of many different cultures—much like the United States—but primarily influenced by French, Spanish, and African traditions.
Since French and Spanish colonists and African slaves were pivotal to the creation of New Orleans, their languages have remained a large part of modern culture in the city. In fact, the Louisiana Creole language is based on a combination of French, Spanish, and African dialects. Creole was originally used by French colonists to refer to people born in Louisiana and not in the motherland (France).
You'll likely encounter many restaurants, bars, and shops with French, Spanish, Creole, and even African names to celebrate this diverse cultural heritage, so when it comes to pronouncing the names of these establishments, you'll want to refer to pronunciation guides from those four languages.