From Baton Rouge to Lafayette and from the App Store to social media, a group of Louisianan activists is fighting to preserve the language of their ancestors — Cajun, or Louisiana French.
Luke Romero uses his iPhone if he wants to understand his Francophone grandparents. Born into a family based in Louisiana since the 18th century, the 33-year-old software developer is the creator of the LearnCajun app. This database of 90 words in Cajun French is accompanied by examples of pronunciation as spoken by his grandparents and friends. Examples include pas bon petit (“bad boy”), canaille (“mischievous”), and boucanière (“smoke house”).
This free service was launched on the App Store on March 1, 2018, and has already been downloaded more than 6,000 times. Certain users have even suggested additional words, and others have sent in their own voice recordings. “I created this app for two reasons,” says Luke Romero, who grew up in St. Martinville, southeast of Lafayette. “I wanted to preserve my ancestors’ culture and make their language accessible to as many people as possible.”
Cajun French (also known as Cadien or Cadjin) arrived in Louisiana with the Francophone Acadians who were driven out of Canada by the British in 1755. However, until recently the language had all but disappeared. Long outlawed in schools and seen as outdated and vulgar, Cajun was associated with redneck culture. The French dialect, a blend of Spanish, English, Native American, and African influences, has been enjoying a new lease of life since the 1960s.
Cajun Classes at Louisiana State University
This “ethnic and linguistic pride movement” sped up with the creation of a Cajun French Studies program in 1998 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge — the first of its kind in the United States. A total of 47 students from Louisiana, Georgia, California, and North Dakota are currently enrolled in the program. No ability to speak “standard French” is required. The program includes language and culture classes, and a five-day immersion trip to Arnaudville, northeast of Lafayette. Students also work on a research project at the end of the semester, filming an interview with a Cajun speaker, taking part in the documentation of the language, and expanding the university’s oral history library.
Students tend to take these classes more “out of personal interest rather than to further their careers,” says Cathy Luquette, who has headed up the program since 2015. Louisiana French is still a vernacular language. But it is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 people can speak it in Louisiana. The “Cajun French Virtual Table Française” Facebook group created in 2015 counts some 30,000 members, who regularly share childhood memories, vocabulary, and book recommendations.
Amanda LaFleur is a linguist and professor of French, author of a collection of Cadien expressions, co-author of a Cajun dictionary, and was the original founder of the program at Louisiana State University. Now retired, she continues to advocate for the inclusion of Louisiana French in the “Francophonie family.”
France-Amérique: How did you develop the Cajun French Studies curriculum?
Amanda LaFleur: I chose a communicative approach. Louisiana French is a traditionally oral language, and it was therefore essential for students to be in contact with its speakers. I asked each of them to choose someone with whom they could speak Cajun French in their community, and provided them with the basic components. They were then able to learn the regional characteristics with their speaking partners.
To what extent does Louisiana French vary from one region to the next?
The dialect spoken in Lafayette is not the same as the one spoken in Lake Charles. There are differences in both vocabulary and grammar. The word for alligator is caïman in the the Mississippi Delta, and cocodri or cocodril in the other areas of the State. And in the parishes of Evangeline and Avoyelles in the center of Louisiana, and in Lafourche, they use something linguists call the “inanimate qui” (the inanimate “who”). In short, qui is used in place of quoi (what). My mother never asked me Quoi ce que tu veux manger ce soir ? (“What do you want to eat this evening?”), but instead Qui ce que tu veux manger ce soir ?
You contributed to a dictionary of Louisiana French in 2009. How did you transcribe the words in Cajun, which is essentially an oral language?
There is no Académie cadjinne to regulate the language in the way the Académie française governs French. In Anglophone tradition, language evolutions are formalized by use and literature. The dictionaries published every year represent a de facto authority. Writing our dictionary, we transcribed words in Cajun using the spelling and phonetics of standard French. In cases of words borrowed from indigenous or foreign languages, we used spelling that was phonetically close to French. The word chaoui (“racoon” in the Choctaw language) is therefore written with a “ch” just like in French. The same goes for the word bayuk, which has become “bayou.” When it comes to verbal structures, French grammar is applied as much as possible. We write je vas, tu vas (“I go, you go”) instead of je vais, tu vas, but we kept the final “s” from standard French for the first and second person singular.
Louisiana French is steeped in oral tradition. Is there a body of Cajun literature available today?
The publication of the book Lâche pas la patate (Revon Reed, 1976) and the poetry collection Cris sur le bayou (Jean Arceneaux, 1980) marked the rebirth of Cadien literature. The poet Kirby Jambon was the first Louisianan to be recognized by the Académie française. He received the 2014 Prix Henri de Régnier, awarded to support literary creation every year. Zachary Richard, David Cheramie, and Deborah Clifton are three other notable examples of the literary movement. The Tintamarre publishing house founded by Dana Kress at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, releases texts from the 19th century along with works by contemporary authors. The republication of old books is a way of financing the promotion of young Louisianan writers!
Several resources are available for those looking to learn or practice their Louisiana French:
– Classes organized by the department of French at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
– The PhD in Francophone Studies offered by the University of Louisiana in Lafayette includes courses on Louisiana Cajun
– Classes for adults run by poet Kirby Jambon, from June 13 through August 8 at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette
– The LearnCajun app, available for free on the App Store
– Vocabulary flashcards developed by Louisiana author C. Marshall Turner, available for free on his website
– Discussion groups and tables françaises on Facebook