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Saints’ Chant Stuck in Trademark Controversy

February 5, 2010

One of the t-shirts in question. Courtesy of the AP


With Superbowl XLIV only days away, contending team New Orleans Saints have found themselves in the middle of a controversy regarding the ownership of their trademark chant, and who has the right to use it.

The chant is, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?”  but is often shortened to, “Who dat?” and it is shouted by Saints fans of varied races during games, although its origins are clearly derived from African American English.  The shortened version of the chant has been at the center of the storm, as Louisiana vendors attempting to sell black “Who dat?” T-shirts with the Saints’ symbol (the fleur-de-lis) in preparation for Sunday’s game were asked to cease and desist.

The NFL and the Saints saw the sales as an affront to a trademark they hold over the phrase.  But can they own a phrase that dates back into the 19th century?

The origins of the phrase “Who dat?” are much debated.  It is generally agreed upon that the phrase is over 100 years old and takes its roots in early jazz and vaudeville.  One commonly cited first appearance of the phrase is in the song, “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd”  featured in the vaudeville show, “Summer Nights” in the late 1890s, as stated by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff ‘s book Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs,’ and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz.

The chant, whose Standard English translation would be, “Who is that who says they’re going to beat those Saints?” exhibits multiple elements of African American English and other dialects of American English.  For example, in AAE, the word-initial voiced “th,” sound, called “theta” (/θ/ in the IPA alphabet), becomes a /d/ sound.  This creates “dat,” “dey,” and “dem,” in the place of “that,” “they,” and “them.”  Another feature of AAE is the omission of the relative pronoun, explaining the absence of the word “who.”  Lastly, in AAE, “dem” is used to mark the third-person plural pronoun (not “those”).  From this we can see how the phrase “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” is derived from AAE rules.

It is also a common feature of AAE to omit the present tense verb “is.” Furthermore regarding verbs, in AAE, there is no conjugated third-person singular form, rather it is the same as the first and third-person form.

It was decided on Monday that the T-shirts can be sold, so long as they do not include both the phrase and the symbol, and granted they do not pose as official NFL gear.  The NFL further explained that they don’t claim to own the phrase, only in its Saints context.  Perhaps in the end, this will just be another tiny moment in “Who dat?”s long history.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ayeska permalink*
    April 6, 2010 12:54 am

    It’s interesting the way American media and popular culture seem to embrace AAE as a type of commodity. The dialect has received some positive recognition in society as illustrated by the sales and purchases of the shirts in question, and the “who dat?” chants at Saints’ games, yet in other areas such as education and everyday experiences, the dialect and its users are often stigmatized. Just watch the news or read a periodical and you’ll sense the way non-standard American speech is regarded as taboo.

    I can’t help but wonder if the “who dat?” phrase would receive much widespread attention outside of the AAE-speaking community were it not for its use by the NFL…

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