Louisiana French refers, in general, to the varieties of French spoken in Louisiana in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian communities. The purpose of this text is to teach the reader how to read, write, and speak Louisiana French. However, we are going to limit ourselves mainly to Cajun French. Since Louisiana French shares much of its vocabulary and grammar with French as it is spoken throughout the world (which we will refer to as International French), we will concentrate here on providing lessons and examples which reveal the unique character of Louisiana French.
Whose Louisiana French?
Hosea Phillips, in his article titled "The Spoken French of Louisiana", identifies three varieties of French spoken in Louisiana: Standard Louisiana French, Acadian French, and Creole French.
What Phillips refers to as Standard Louisiana French is not too dissimilar from what we will refer to as International French. This Standard Louisiana French resembles International French and differs only slightly in pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, and grammar from International French. The sources of the difference can be identified in the following ways: Standard Louisiana French (1) retains many of the "archaic" French that would have been standard in the 17th century, and, (2) because of its long interaction with Acadian French, has adopted many of its forms and pronunciations. Phillips gives a number of examples in his article to support his point.
Acadian French, as described by Phillips, is closer to what we have in mind as Louisiana French. Phillips stresses that Acadian French isn't a dialect of French, but is "a common language which has assimilated certain dialectal elements, but, on the whole, resembles the French spoken in the villages and rural areas of northern and western France." Phillips's Acadian French is the French imported by the Acadians from Nova Scotia, but which has experienced a great deal of internal normalization through interaction with the many languages and cultures that have settled in Louisiana in the past three hundred years. Phillips briefly outlines how Acadian French has developed through "phonetic accidents" such as metathesis, assimilation, dissimilation, and agglutination, which combined has contributed to the modern pronunciation of Acadian French. Even though there are regional flavors of Acadian French that differentiate the French spoken in one parish from another, Phillips emphasizes that the differences aren't so great as to make difficult the communication of Acadian French speakers from different parishes.
The other major variety of Louisiana French identified by Phillips is Creole French. Similar to Phillip's Standard Louisiana French and Acadian French, Creole French primarily is a spoken language and has been handed down from generation to generation orally without formal instruction. Also similar to Acadian French, there are wide regional variations in Creole French.
Apparently, speakers of Standard Louisiana French and Creole French historically have been able to shift to Acadian French for daily communication (when necessary or when social customs demand it).
The Cajun Language
French colonists were speaking French in Louisiana long before the Acadians arrived. The language of the "Cajuns" is just one of the many influences which have combined to create what is today generally referred to as Louisiana French. The Cajuns are the descendants of the Francophone people exiled by the British in 1755 from Acadia (or Nova Scotia) who settled in Louisiana.
What Rev. Jules O. Daigle called "the Cajun Language" is a way of speaking French that was passed down orally, generation to generation, by the descendants of the original Louisiana Acadians. This way of speaking was influenced by contact with many other languages, including English, Spanish, German, (etc.) and various American Indian languages.
By the twentieth century most Cajuns were bilingual, capable of speaking both their native French and English. As a result, "modern" Cajun can be a mix of French and English. For example, you might hear a Cajun speaker say, "J'ai pas pu t'appeler back," for "I couldn't call you back." The Cajun speaker isn't constrained to use the French rappeler for "to call back." However, the Cajun speaker will typically be aware of the word rappeler and could make use of it, if they chose to.
Since Cajun French was transmitted orally, as opposed to being written down, there is no traditional way of spelling words which are peculiar to Cajun French. James Donald Faulk, in his Cajun French I (1977), adopted a phonetic method of writing in order to preserve the Cajun pronunciation of French words. Rev. Jules O. Daigle chose to use a method of spelling that more closely mapped onto International French orthography, but maintained a secondary/complementary phonetic writing to aid in proper pronunciation. In the recently published Dictionary of Louisiana French the editors decided to normalize Louisiana French spelling with International French for the cases where nothing would be lost from Louisiana French by adopting such a convention. We will also go along with the editors of the Dictionary of Louisiana French and adopt their spelling choices for Louisiana French words. (This is perhaps a controversial choice since some argue that emphasizing the differences between Louisiana French and International French helps establish the former as something special and more worth preserving, rather than just being a local variant of "standard" French. However, one could argue that there are plenty of differences in grammar and vocabulary to sufficiently establish Louisiana French as a particular rich version of the French language that has its own value as a medium of modern communication and, because of its expanded vocabulary, a potentially powerful mode of expression for new works of literature.)
Differences and Similarities
In both his seminal references on the Cajun language, Rev. Jules O. Daigle tried to make the case that Cajun is sufficiently different from French that Cajun qualifies as a separate language. However, more recent sources stress the similarities of Cajun and French.
Probably the greatest difference between the French spoken in Louisiana and that spoken in France is pronunciation. It is perhaps this difference that has led to an exaggeration in estimating the linguistic gulf that separates the Parisian from the Cajun. Any International French word should be comprehensible to the Louisiana French speaker; however, Louisiana French has a set of words unique to its vocabulary as well a tradition of idiomatic expressions not shared with International French. Also there are some grammar differences between Louisiana and International French. We will go over all these differences in this book.
One thing to keep in mind is that Louisiana French contains many local variations in spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. A French speaker from Houma may speak and spell their French differently than someone from Lafayette. The recently published Dictionary of Louisiana French has (for its purposes) adopted spelling conventions that map more easily onto International French. In this book, we will default to the Dictionary of Louisiana French spelling for French words.
The following table compares common usage between International French and Louisiana French. Note that the Louisiana French speak also understands and uses the words in the International French column, sometimes the meaning is preserved, but not always.
|Some Differences between International and Louisiana French|
|to babble||babiller, bafouiller||bajeuler|
|short pieces, scraps||pièces, morceaux||boutailles, boutaillons|
|to aim (a gun)||viser||mirer|
|barnyard||basse-cour||cour de magasin|
|to chat||causerie, causette||causade|
|to balk, steal, hide (a horse)||voler||faire rétif|
|ballroom||salle de danse||salle de bal|
|to beat (a person)||battre||bûcher|
|to beat (defeat)||vaincre||battre|
|to bind||lier, attacher||amarrer|
|be gone!||hors d'ici !||va-t'en ! sors d'icitte !|
|lima bean, butterbean||haricot beurre||fève platte|
|beef steak||bifteck||beef steak|
These are only some of the differences between International and Louisiana French, but it highlights the changes that have occurred over time.
|Some Louisiana French Sentences|
|Quoi c'est vous-autres est après faire?||What are y'all doing?|
|On est entrain d'aller piocher notre jardin.||We're about to go hoe our garden.|
|Éoù t'es parti?||Where are you going?|
|Je suis parti au village.||I am going to town.|
|Je vas à l'ouvrage.||I am going to work.|
|Je m'en vas chez moi.||I am going home.|
|Ça me fait de la peine.||I'm sorry.|
|Quoi c'est ton frère est après faire?||What is your brother doing?|
|Il est après arranger son char.||He is fixing his car.|
|Jacques est après dormir.||Jack is sleeping.|
|Non, il est après faire son ouvrage de maison.||No, he is doing his housework.|
|Le band est entrain de commencer.||The band is about to start.|
|On est entrain de battre notre riz.||We are about to thresh our rice.|
|Notre voisin est après battre son riz asteur.||Our neighbor is threshing his rice now.|
|Quoi t'es après faire?||What are you doing?|
|Je suis pas après faire rien, pourquoi?||I'm not doing anything, why?|
Source: Faulk 1977, Whatley & Jannise 1981 (Pelican)
- Phillips, Hosea. "The Spoken French of Louisiana". published in The Cajuns: Essays on Their History and Culture, Glenn R. Conrad, ed. Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana, 1983.
- ibid. p. 147
- A Dictionary of the Cajun Language and Cajun Self-Taught
- Dictionary of Louisiana French: As Spoken in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities, Albert Valdman, ed. University Press of Mississippi, 2009