The National Football League’s settling out of court with a New Orleans company over use of “Who Dat” earlier this year was a disappointment to one of the folklorists hired by the NFL to research the history of the expression that has become synonymous with New Orleans and its professional football team.
“I wish a judge, and maybe a jury, could have heard the arguments about whether or not ‘Who Dat’ could be trademarked,” said Shana Walton, a linguist and folklorist in Nicholls State University’s Department of Languages and Literature.”
Walton spoke at a recent LSU Geography and Anthropology Friday Forum. Walton’s Ph.D.. in linguistic anthropology is from Tulane University.
“If the suit had made it to trial,” Walton said, “then a judge could have ruled the phrase generic and settled the idea, once and for all, that any part of it could belong to a business or a team.
“Right now, you still have businesses entering into licensing agreements for use of the phrase,” she said. “Clearly, most people think this is ridiculous. And for good reason. These words and this chant are part of community culture.”
Replacing the “th” sound with a “d” sound is what linguists call substituting the voiced interdental fricative with the voiced alveolar stop. “Them” becomes “dem” as in New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri’s asking Franklin Roosevelt, “How ya like dem ersters, Mr. President?”
“Who is that talking about beating them Saints” becomes “Who dat talkin’ ‘bout beatin’ dem Saints.”
The mispronunciations are associated with Caribbean people, native people in English colonies, German, Italian and Jewish immigrants in New York, Philadelphia and New York.
For Walton, the bigger story is that “Who Dat,” once used to marginalize and insult black people, “became the basis of a chant, a rallying cry for a sports team and, really, a city — across racial and class lines.”
In the fall 2011, the NFL hired Walton, linguist Christina Casey Schoux, of the University of Pittsburgh, and folklorist Mona Lisa Saloy, of Dillard University to research the history of the “Who Dat” chant.
The NFL had been sued by Who Dat? Inc., a New Orleans company owned by Steve Monistere.
In 2009, the NFL, saying it owned “Who Dat?” had sued small businesses to block the sale of merchandise not sanctioned by the NFL.
The NFL punted when fans and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said “Who Dat?” and the “Who Dat?” chant belong to the people.
Monistere claimed ownership and licensing rights to the full “Who Dat” chant, as well as “Who Dat?”
He based his claim, Walton said, on a recording his small record company made in 1983 of Aaron Neville singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Some Saints football players formed an ungainly danceline behind Neville. Monistere says he suggested that at the end of the song Neville and the players chant “Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints, who dat, who dat.”
Monistere and partner Carlo Nuccio copyrighted the phrase “Who Dat” with the Louisiana secretary of state, Walton said.
Monistere doesn’t dispute that other people had the chant before his version, Walton said in her talk at LSU, but Monistere says his recorded version was the reason the Saints adopted the chant.
“Clearly, to us ethnographers and folklorists the case for Who Dat? Inc. is ridiculous,” Walton said. “Obviously, Steve Monistere and Carlo Nuccio appropriated a chant that had long been a part of culture in African-American New Orleans — and possibly the South — and simply put it at the end of a song. His version wasn’t different. It was the same.”
Walton’s research found that black football fans at Patterson High School were chanting, “Who dat, who dat, who dat talking ’bout beatin’ dem Jacks?” in 1979.
Black and white fans didn’t sit together at Patterson High Lumberjacks games in the early 1970s, Walton said.
The Who Dat chant united the fans, she said.
“Even African-American students attending the school today probably don’t think of it as having been part of the black culture,” she said. “My interviews point to them believing that the chant belongs to the school.”
Fans of Southwestern Athletic Conference teams, as well as some predominantly black New Orleans high schools, claim the “Who Dat” chant as their own, Walton said.
“I’m from the Lower 9th Ward. I’ve been using the term ‘Who Dat’ since I was a toddler,” lawyer Darleen Jacobs told WWL-TV in October.
Jacobs owns a diner in Violet she called the Who Dat Yat Chat. Who Dat? Inc. sued her over use of the name.
“The net effect of the settlement is that nobody owns Who Dat,” Jacobs said.
“We’ve never claimed to own Who Dat,” Montisere told the television station. “That’s silly. We’ve only claimed to own the commercial rights and the trademark in a very narrow niche of goods and services.”
When the NFL and Who Dat? Inc. agreed earlier this year to dismiss all claims against each other, each side said it would sell “co-branded merchandise.”