Cajun French was forbidden in Louisiana until 1964. This dialect is a blend of French, English, Spanish and Caribbean influences, and is now being revived through the music of the Lost Bayou Ramblers. The band’s singer and violinist, Louis Michot, talked to us about his commitment to save Louisiana’s Cajun culture.
France-Amérique: How did Cajun French arrive in Louisiana?
Louis Michot: In the spring of 1755, the British seized Acadia [the current Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island] and deported the Francophone colonies living there. When the 12,000 deportees moved to Louisiana, they created Cajun French, also known as Acadian French or Louisiana French. Cajun French is a spoken language, and has been profoundly influenced by Louisiana’s French heritage and its dealings with the Caribbean and Latin America. It now includes expressions originally from French, Spanish, English, African and Native American languages. After Louisiana was sold to the United States in 1803, Cajun French evolved independently from mainland French, which explains why many French people don’t understand it. For example, char means voiture (“car”) and gros char means train (“train”). We say almanach for calendrier (“calendar”) and asteur for maintenant (“now”).
What links do you have to Cajun French?
My ancestors were originally from La Charité-sur-Loire, in Central France. They arrived in Haiti in the 18th century, before moving to New Orleans in 1803. My great-grandfather Louis Michot was born in 1897, and was the last member of the Michot family to learn French as his mother tongue. Teaching any language other than English at school was banned in Louisiana in 1921. My great-grandfather was a teacher, and enforced this law despite his heritage. His children never learned French at school. My father and my uncles taught themselves French and Cajun French by forming a band, Les Frères Michot, in the 1980s. My brother André, my cousins and I continued this tradition by starting our own band, the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
How did you learn Cajun French?
I was part of a Cajun French singing group when I was a teenager, and I would sometimes stand in for my uncles on stage. I then started an immersive French program at the Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, the birthplace of French in North America. I also began learning the violin at the same time. Music is a universal language in our family. It acts as a bridge, and has allowed Cajun French to survive and continue for generations.
What do you think the future holds for Cajun French in Louisiana?
Speaking French was seen as a disadvantage in Louisiana less than 100 years ago. Even today, Cajun French is generally only spoken at home. People are ashamed of speaking it in public. But mentalities are gradually changing, and everyone is realizing that being bilingual is an advantage. I was recently in a store, and overheard a woman translate the price of a box of medicine into Cajun French for her husband. She said six piastres for “six dollars.” As you can see, there are still people in Louisiana who don’t speak a word of English. It’s both astonishing and reassuring. Cajun French is certainly not about to disappear!