Table of Contents

Louisiana Folklife: An Introduction

Louisiana Folklife: An Introduction, Nicholas R. Spitzer

Folklife Research in Louisiana

Ethnicity, Region, Occupation and Family

Folklife and Public Policy

Public Sector Attention to Folklife in the United States, Archie Green
Folklife and Public Policy In Louisiana
A Folklife Plan for the State of Louisiana, F. A. de Caro
Folklife and Education, C. Paige Gutierrez
Folklife and the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism
Office of Cultural Development: Division of the Arts, Louisiana Folklife Program, Division of Historic Preservation, Division of Archeology
Office of State Museum
Office of Tourism
Office of State Parks
Office of the State Library


1. Resources in Research, Preservation, and Presentation of Louisiana Folklife
2. Doctoral Dissertations/Masters Theses Relevant to Louisiana Folklife
3. Film and Video on Louisiana Folklife
4. Louisiana Folk Music on Sound Recordings
5. Louisiana Festivals -- Traditional and Otherwise
6. Louisiana State Documents Relevant to Folklife
7. Oral History and Folklife
8. Louisiana Folklife Legislation/Louisiana Folklife Commission
9. Louisiana Folklife Survey

Languages And Linguistic Research In Louisiana

By J. L. Dillard

This essay originally appeared in Folklife in Louisiana: A Guide to the State published by the Office of Cultural Development in 1985. This essay is provided online courtesy of the editor since the publication is out of print.



Language is the primary medium for the transmission of folk traditions such as beliefs, farming, fishing, hunting practices, and folk medicine, not to mention stories, songs, jokes, and proverbs. Louisiana is a state that thinks and speaks in at least seven languages: English, French, French Creole, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Hungarian, and Croatian. To these we can add many dialects of French, Spanish, and English. In the latter case, for example, there are large numbers of Cajun English and black English speakers as well as a variety of rural Anglo dialects from the Tidewater-influenced Florida Parishes to the Upland South areas of north Louisiana. There is also the famed Irish Channel and 9th Ward New Orleans pronunciation as well as smaller numbers of speakers of Indian languages, Gullah (English Creole), and Chinese, among others. A number of Louisianians are bilingual (especially Cajun French-English and Spanish-English). Some are trilingual (French Creole-Cajun French-English, Croatian-French-English, or "Isleño" Spanish-Cajun French-English).

Video Player
Excerpt, Yeah, You Rite! New Orleans language is just one thing that is unique to the city's culture and lifestyle. This clip concentrates on this esoteric language and aptly displays a wide range of New Orleans lingo. The video also calls attention to the great dialect differences within the city. By listening to the language used in New Orleans, you can learn much about the culture. Also includes children's hand clapping game. Produced and directed by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, 1985.

That language and cultural identity are linked is a truism. Further, there is no doubt that the continuation and mingling of the many oral language traditions in Louisiana have an important role to play symbolically and practically for the perpetuation of cultural diversity in the state. Yet it is equally clear, for example, that Cajuns who no longer speak French often still maintain other folk cultural traditions and their identify as Cajuns. The complex details of this sort of linkage between language and culture for all the folk groups in Louisiana is beyond the scope of this article. Yet in-depth sociolinguistic work on the many non-standard language bearers is in short supply for a state that is as aggressively interested in bilingual language retention and cultural preservation programs as is Louisiana. It is hoped that this article, concerned primarily with the historical causes for and a survey description of the present linguistic diversity, will serve as a baseline for future work. Professor Dillard of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches is an internationally known linguist with specialties in black English and the origins of creole languages. He is the author of Black English (1972), Black Names (1976) and A Lexicon of Black English (1977), among other books and articles.

The scope of interaction between dialects of the same language and between diverse languages in Louisiana is probably the greatest of all the states in the union. This is not to say that even New Orleans can compare with Los Angeles or New York in the number of languages spoken by recent immigrants. And it is a moot question whether any "ethnic" language has survived in Louisiana to as great a degree as the Spanish found throughout regions in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, etc. - and whether the total influence of French in Louisiana has been as great. However, in the richness of the special contact situations worked out for long-term multilingualism, Louisiana is unique. It is probably even more important than South Carolina in the history of special contact languages in this country, and in the total historical picture it rivals even an unusually complex West Indian island like Curacao. The key word for much of this kind of language complexity is Creole, a term with many meanings for different people. Derived through French and Spanish criollo "native born" (although as will appear below, Portuguese crioulo, in the same meaning, is at least as likely a source), the word is sometimes used by the general public so as to exclude speakers of African ancestry and their language varieties. In the phrase Creoles de couleur, the term has long been used in Louisiana for those of mixed ancestry. The story of why linguists use the term to apply to the most probably African-influenced of the language varieties is closely tied up with the interpretation of the language picture in south Louisiana.

French in Louisiana

By the early eighteenth century, French in Louisiana had turned from the language of explorers to that of permanent settlers. Although there is little or no record relevant to their actual speech, it is generally assumed that at least some of them--the highest-ranking--spoke a relatively prestigious and standard French. According to Read (1931) there has always been an important component of relatively standard French in Louisiana. It is also well known that there are at least two other varieties. Acadian ("Cajun" hereinafter referred to in the latter form) and "Gumbo"- the French spoken primarily by blacks or "people of color." The last is related to varieties like Haitian and Martiniquan, and somewhat more distantly to Indian Ocean Creole, and represents what the linguist - sometimes in opposition to the local folk terminology - calls a Creole language.

A look at the distribution of US-born white population with French as a mother tongue. 1970 US Census of Population. James P. Allen, Department of Geography, California State University, Northridge.

Recent research, especially by Hull (1968, 1979) sheds some important light on these varieties. First, it is rather clear now that a Maritime French (paralleled by Maritime English and not only paralleled, but also probably influenced by Maritime Portuguese) existed by the time of the early French settlements. Hull (1968) points out how even the more nearly "standard" varieties of colonial French may have reflected to some degree this maritime influence. (For a parallel, see the discussion of Maritime or "Isleños" Spanish below.)1

Cajun French, at once perhaps the best-known variety of Louisiana French and paradoxically the least likely to be called a "Creole" - though it is by some Louisiana speakers - represents on an obvious historical level, the expulsion from Acadia in Nova Scotia of several thousand French speakers who refused to submit to King George and the English language. The Acadian migration to Louisiana between 1764 and the 1790s brought a continuous stream of them into various unsettled regions. Cajun French has a large number of similarities, naturally, to Canadian French, Hull (1968) points out, however, that normal Cajun (and Louisiana) French affricates [ ĉ ]--as in English words spelled with ch--and [ ƒ ]--as in English words like judge--are not found in Canadian French proper, including that of Nova Scotia. They are found in Maritime French, however; it should be remembered that the "Acadians" who came to Louisiana stopped over for some time in other colonies, and that possibly not every one of the migrants of the period came from Canada at all.

A look at the distribution of US-born black population with French as a mother tongue. 1970 US Census of Population. James P. Allen, Department of Geography, California State University, Northridge.

The French Creole, in the classical Caribbeanist's sense, which differs most greatly from either of these varieties, has been variously called Gumbo, Français Nègre, Nèg,' or some such name, and has been, perhaps in too facile a manner, accorded influence from African languages. The association, whether completely accurate or not, is a natural one, since the first Negro slaves were brought to Louisiana in 1719 (a century after the first load arrived in Virginia), and they were near the number of the whites by 1724. That certain African customs have persisted is almost beyond doubt.

Questioned as to the nature of the French they spoke, my informants have characterized both their French and my attempts to produce Haitian Creole as mo couri, mo vini.2 There is a certain aptness to the name. For one thing, it fixes on several of the classical Creole grammatical features: not only the quite superficial invariant pronoun (mo for both subject and object) but also the aspect-marked, tense-neutral (or deletable) verb. Mo couri, for example, can mean, 'I go' or 'I went,' depending on the context, although a verb can be unambiguously marked for past tense with preverbal . Although seldom treated formally, the different distribution of redundancies (not prevalence or incidence of redundancy, which exist in all language varieties) is one of the major differences between Creole languages and lexically related standard languages (Dillard 1977: 102- 105).3

None of these varieties has remained in such isolation that it has not been influenced by the other two. And, despite the attempts of Francophile revivalist purists, it is probable that none of the three has remained uninfluenced by English.

Gumbo French Creole clearly has some features, if only morphological "simplification,-' in common with contact varieties (pidgins) used around the world. One of these would be the Indo-Chinese Tây Bôy (Reinecke 1971). Although Pidgin French is by no means so widely attested as Pidgin English or, especially, Pidgin Portuguese, the existence of a morphologically simplified maritime contact variety (not necessarily identical to what Hull calls Maritime French) by at least as early as the eighteenth century seems assured. Raleigh Morgan, who worked in St. Martin Parish (1970), points out that haler, a nautical term, is used for 'pull'; tirer means "milk'.

Africanization of French is not as useful an explanation of the process of development of that pidgin into a creole language as was once thought. As a complement to the African influence, a leveled4 dialect of French used by sailors may have been widespread (Hull 1979). In fact, not even the assumption that the pidgin developed "in the slave factories in Africa" (Brewer and Brandies 1977: 485) seems so certain any more.

In the earliest days, users of the Maritime French must have found it convenient to communicate with speakers of a slightly Africanized version of the same thing--in Africa, in the West Indies, and probably even in Louisiana--no matter what slight inconvenience may have been introduced by the need to use a few foreign words or turns of phrase. Hardly a better example could be given than the popular south Louisiana word lagniappe. The word is supposedly from the South American Indian language Quechua, but obviously requires maritime transmission from the Andes to reach Louisiana, not to mention being scattered around in West Indian Spanish (as la ñapa) and English. The earliest citation in the Dictionary of Americanisms clearly attributes this term to "our Creole Negroes." Grammatical differences between French Creole and Standard French are generally considered to be great. Morgan (1972) points out how there are non-Gallic usages in Creole structures as simple as the definite article:

Dolo-la šo
(Noun-Determiner Adjective)
Dolo šo-la
(Noun Adjective-Determiner)

Folk French
L'eau est chaude.
de l'eau chaude

The water is hot.
(some) hot water

A considerable reinforcement of French Creole came to Louisiana from Haiti with immigrants who fled from the Haitian War of Independence at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Goodman (1964) credits these immigrants with introducing the Haitian possessive construction, which did not become very widespread, and theorized that the Louisiana preposed future time particle ava, (presumably from avant) as in m'ava couri, I am going to run, may have had a similar origin.

In nearly two centuries, this "Gumbo" French has lost a considerable number of users, has undergone a great deal of decreolization (influence from more standard French), and has borrowed extensively from English. Indeed, virtually every speaker of Gumbo has used one or both of the other two languages for about a century. Morgan (1964) shows decreolization toward French, including adoption of some idioms in / m.-vikuri / 'I feel like going' (influenced by Standard French avoir envie de), / nubEzwEndolo / "we need water' (influenced by avoir besoin de). Morgan also points out that "certain loan shifts in the dialect are obviously English and neither French nor African, such as / ārilif / 'on relief', / peyeātā / 'pay on time', and / ādife / "on the fire'. Morgan also (1959) points out the extensive use of English borrowings like boss.

The Parish of St. Martin along with parts of Iberia, St. Landry, Lafayette, St. Mary, and Pointe Coupee (see map 2), is the core area of Creole speaking in Louisiana. Morgan (1964) reports that St. Martin Parish Creole was "strongly calqued with Acadian French and English features, even when used between members of the same family.5 Black speakers who sparingly use Creole, or any kind of French, are strongly aware of the use of the language in the "old home" area. An informant of mine in Beaumont, Texas, who could easily understand and reluctantly produce some of the Creole, explained to me that almost everyone in St. Martinville could speak "French"; he added, "In Africa I guess they don't speak nothing else."

Wider-ranging studies, not always done with the same amount of detail as Morgan's, show a considerable mixing of Creole and Cajun. As the musical type called zydeco may be practiced by either the Cajun or the Creole group, so the derivation of the word could be from any of the three varieties of French or even from an African language. The folk explanation accepted by both Cajuns and Creoles is that zydeco--itself a folk spelling--comes from les haricots, found in the song z-haricots sont pas salés, the attachment of the initial / z / giving the derivation a Creole flavor, since Haitian and other related varieties make les oiseau into singular (or not necessarily plural zwazo, etc. The connection with snap (or string) beans is questionable, and Ian F. Hancock (personal communication) points out that Gur, a West-African language, has zade-ko ('dance').

If undisputed Africanisms in everyday usage are small in number, Trouillot (1972) points that, as in Haiti (Simpson 1970) and Cuba (Cabrera 1970), presumptive Africanisms are widely used in voodoo ceremonies as ritual-language words not literally understood by the participants perhaps somewhat like Hallelujah or Hosannah in many Christian ceremonies.

Some relatively pessimistic linguists and anthropologists feel that both Cajun and Creole are losing ground, as are the culture they represent. Ditchy (1932) reports that Cajun was the language of three-fourths of the inhabitants of south Louisiana before 1861, but that the four years of the Civil War had "Anglicized" the soldier, the laborer, and the artisan.6 It is interesting that, like other "non-standard" or non-prestige varieties, (cf. black English in Harrison (1884]). Cajun, like Gumbo, is frequently thought of as diminishing in use, if not on the verge of extinction, Often, this kind of report claims that the population which formerly spoke the non-standard variety now speaks only the standard--with perhaps a few "stylistic" features (cf. Krapp [1925] and Smitherman [1973]) for black English).

For Cajun French, an interestingly different reaction has developed. Faulk (1977) presents a cumbersome English-based orthography (writing system) for Cajun which has drawn the wrath of Ancelet (1977) and others. Ancelet points out that Faulk's Eel ā ahpre ahronjá son shah (p. 150) is an unnecessarily grotesque way of rendering what could be written Il est apres arranger son char with essentially French orthography. Faulk does not and apparently neither has anyone else made any pretense of using a phonemic,7 systematic phonetic, or other "linguistic" transcription system. Tentchoff (1975) presents perhaps the strongest case for fully autononious treatment. Judging from reactions like that drawn by Hall (1953) for his modified phonemic system for Haitian Creole, a mildly Gallicized spelling system is more likely to meet acceptance than anything else. It just might be the right answer, after all.

Scene at a Cajun dancehall near Galliano. Photograph: Nicholas R. Spitzer. Jean Lafitte National Park.

It is interesting that Faulk seems to hedge a bit on the grammatical "peculiarities" of Cajun. One of the most frequently remarked characteristics, the use of je for the first person plural subject form, is replaced in his treatment by on: on parle rather than je parlions. (Following the suggestions of Ancelet and my own inclinations, I abandon the awkward orthography of Faulk even when citing examples from his work.) It is not perfectly clear from the writings of either Ancelet (1977) or Faulk, but it seems likely that the "middle generation of thirty and forty-year-olds who learned to speak French largely in spite of their parents and in spite of the school system" (Ancelet 1977: 2), is the one which has abandoned this "bizarre" form. It is an especially strange paradox that the "poorly learned" Cajun of Ancelet's "middle" generation should be those Cajuns who themselves were gaining greatly in respectability, and at a time when knowing a smattering of the language became a status symbol to some Louisianians.

The respectability of and interest in the Cajuns has led to some changes in linguistic usage. In 1961, Babington and Atwood characterized fais do do, the adults' party for which at least the younger children were put to sleep, among usages confined to the rural parishes of (southern) Louisiana. But by 1961, the term had certainly appeared enough in popular publications to make it part of the receptive vocabulary of almost anyone in northern Louisiana. On the other hand, a lack of folkloric appeal probably explains why poule d' eau ('coot') and bagasse ("waste from sugar cane') have not spread much further north in recent times. However, gourmet appreciation of foods probably explains why bisque ('rich soup') has enjoyed considerable spread during the period.

An ambiguous role in the fate of native French dialects is played by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL). Teams of cooperants militaires (Herold 1972), some of whom were, ironically enough, in the beginning opting to teach two years in a foreign country rather than go into the military service, were the original teachers, The brand of French purveyed by CODOFIL is definitely standard, with no reference to the various patois of France. Many linguists and anthropologists are automatically inclined to view such persons as the natural enemies of Cajun and Creole; it is striking that Ancelet (op. cit.) does not react in the same manner. Some CODOFlL approval has been given to "chants acadiens, jeux et danses qui accompagnent" (Herold 1972: 130). There is, here, the obvious danger of what has been done by French-speaking Haitians, by Standard English-speaking Jamaicans, and by many others in a non-traditional language situation: a condescending to the "charm" of the local variety without the according of respect due to a full-fledged language system.

Colonial Contact and Trade Languages

French is spoken by many of the Chitimacha and Houma Indians, who seem to have abandoned their native languages except for a few old people who remember some texts. English is, of course, also widely used by those tribes. Limited data on the French suggest great similarity to Cajun, although whether the variety represents transmission from Canadian French of Nova Scotia or from Maritime French--or, more likely, both--is a historical question which seems hardly to have been posed yet.

The Caddos, the Adais, the Natchitoches, and some other indigenous tribes having been driven out or exterminated a significant portion of the Indian population came to Louisiana around 1764 in the general movement known as Indian Removal. The Choctaw and the Koasati (Coushatta) are now prominent among the Indian populations of Louisiana. The exact number of Indians in the state varies greatly from one estimate to another.8 The languages they use are not subject to so much doubt. Fortunately, Choctaw is probably responsible for the word for the most characteristic topographic feature of the state, bayou. Although the Oxford English Dictionary strangely cites French boyau 'gut'. It is, of course, not impossible that the French word did have some reinforcing influence, especially in a shifting and multilingual picture.

Map signifying the density within central locations of the population of US-born whites and blacks with French as a mother tongue. 1970 US Census of Population.

A prominent response to that multilingual situation was the Choctaw-based contact language called Yama, from its word for yes, or Mobilian Jargon. Mobilian Jargon was presumably an important Indian contact language from the past, although its nature and origin are not beyond dispute. Drechsel (1979) and Crawford (1978) find it to be of Indian origin--that is, not influenced by the European pidgin languages generated in contact with Indians. Mobilian Jargon must have been used between tribes where the contact situation did not permit simple bilingualism or even stable multilingualism to suffice. Nevertheless, the earliest records indicate the intermixing of Romance (probably Spanish) elements. Few speakers of even a little Mobilian Jargon remain. Most of them are also Choctaw speakers, and the relationship of data recently collected to the "Jargon" when it was strongest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is far from clear.

Map signifying the density within central locations of the population of US-born whites and blacks with French as a mother tongue. 1970 US Census of Population.

The relationship of any of the varieties mentioned above or below to what cultural geographer Terry Jordan (1981) calls "a partially romance-based lingua franca of the Louisiana piney woods" (9) is even more problematic. Using historical reconstruction, Jordan sees this lingua franca as accompanying the spread from black-dominated South Carolina cattle growing areas, across the Gulf corridor to Mobile and Biloxi, and then to the piney woods of Louisiana, citing "a vanguard of Anglo cattle herders, well mixed with French Cajuns (emphasis added)" which "exploded into the tall grass coastal prairie of Louisiana to reach the borders of Spanish Texas" (1981: 45). Jordan finds crawl, 'cattle pen' ultimately related to corral and a few other Afro-Romance words to be associated with that lingua franca. Dillard (1975, 1980) points out that a few English words which have / uw / rather than the expected / ow /, corresponding to Spanish, are most likely associated with some such lingua franca. Calabosse (Spanish calabozo) is actually recorded first from the Mobile area and soon thereafter from New Orleans. The subject is a fascinating one, but it is perhaps a digression from the topic of the languages in Louisiana today. It is also not easy for the historically-minded to ignore the pirates of Jean Lafitte, who occupied Grand Isle not far from this piney woods cattle trail and not very far south of the previously noted locus of Gumbo French Creole. The pirates were linguistically heterogeneous groups of men, and undocumented reports of a "French-Spanish patois" among them can be found in popular histories. Lafitte himself seems to have been able to function in standard French--which does not mean that all his men did.


The cattle business which spread from Louisiana's piney woods to the Texas prairies was certainly conducted mainly by English speakers. It is conventional to begin treatments of the coming of English with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and with the "colonizing" efforts of Moses and Stephen F. Austin. Nevertheless, Babington and Atwood (1961) point out that some English speakers came in during the Spanish regime of roughly 1762-1800. (Dates are approximate because changes of jurisdiction were far from immediate and smooth.) What brand of English this was is apparently not attested.

English is certainly the dominant language in Louisiana today, although "accented" English is by no means a rarity. LeCompte (1967) found, not surprisingly, that Lafourche Parish and Grand Isle were in a "lexical transitional state," with increasing use of English vocabulary. Dialect writers by the dozens have used the Cajun-influenced use of sentence-final emphasis of the subject pronoun: I don't like that, me. Faulk (1977) gives a probably unintentional example of Cajun idiom in English: Between you and me, I think he abuses on her. The English dialect picture divides itself almost like that of French: Black English, Cajun-influenced English (Wise 1933, otherwise known to outsiders primarily from the caricatures of comedians like Justin Wilson), and a range from a few Network Standard10 speakers through a great variety of standard, semi-standard, and non-standard Anglo southern dialects.

Black English is as clearly a part of the dialect picture in Louisiana as it is in the inner cities of the North; only the historical accident that it was first studied in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Detroit leads to the still-used term "inner city" dialect. Black speakers in Louisiana--certainly in the northwestern area--play the dozens in the same manner and with the kind of skill described by Abrahams (1964) and Labov et al. (1968).11

Like "inner city" speakers, Louisiana blacks also use been as a preverbal marker for action performed significantly in the past: I been put it out is a somewhat scornful answer from a black housekeeper to her employer who questions her about putting out a fire. I done put it out would indicate that the action had only recently taken place. Many white speakers, in Louisiana as in other Southern states, have borrowed the latter but very few if any the former preverbal marker. A structure like He been done gone home, translatable roughly as 'He had just gone home': is probably beyond white speakers, as is Time we get there they be done gone. 'When we get there they will have left already.

Jay Edwards of LSU, tells me (personal communication) that he has found a few informants, elderly black males in the community of Waxia, ten miles north of Port Barre on Highway 6, who use not only been + Verb, which parallels té + Verb, so characteristic of French Creole (including Gumbo), but also de + Verb, which parallels ap + Verb in Louisiana French Creole and Hatian Creole, ka + Verb in Dominican French Creole, etc. He did not however, report beena (bina), the usual morphophonemic (automatic pronunciation) variant of been + de before a verb.12 Dillard (1972, 1976) has steadfastly maintained that be + Verb (-ing) is the replacement ("relexification") of de, with -ing becoming quasi-obligatory in imitation of Standard English. The effect is to decreolize or standardize Black English. This is known as the "creolist" theory of the origin of Black English.13

There are a few marginal usages which may represent survivals in complex syntactic (word ordering) structures, where the relatively high degree of grammatical awareness--except for trivial matters, any speaker lacking in professional linguistic training has a very high threshold of awareness of the structures of his own language--operative in the limitation of a more prestigious variety would not work well. For example, in a recording of Clifford Blake of Natchitoches (Hatley et al. 1980), we find an elderly north Louisiana black informant saying:

When I go to can see them / də / go to moving

This / / which frequently occurs in phrases like It started in / də / raining, can usually be rationalized as to, but

When I go to singing...You can see them *to go to moving.

is not acceptable in Standard English, as indicated by the asterisk.

Although it is not historically necessary in Louisiana, or in any other place for matter, that the entire process of pidginization, creolization, and (partial) decreolization take place--any stage being importable from the outside--there is a very great likelihood that Maritime English played almost as important as a role as Maritime French (or Maritime Spanish-see below) in this state. The Irish Channel of New Orleans, no longer populated by Irishmen, is the legendary source of the so called "Yat" / əy / pronunciation in bird, third, etc., but the articulation is found in many maritime, insular, and coastal zones (Berger 1980).

The pronunciation extends far inland, especial; in the variant [3:], where the dipthongal glide (the "i" of "oi" in folk treatment of the pronunciation) tends to be reduced or to disappear. It is found on the Mississippi Coast, up river to Baton Rouge and older people as far into East Texas as Nacogdoches use it frequently. Nevertheless, the concentration of the fully diphthongal articulation among working-class New Orleanians is heavy enough to give rise to frequent popular reports that many residents of that city speak "Brooklynese" (i.e., the dialect of the old Port of New York). If that were literally true, of course, it would be true also that many Brooklynites say you all or y'awl.

The Languages Of Indians

If the conclusion of Brandt and McCrate (1981) is true, the Pidgin English of the Arizona Apaches and other western tribes must have passed through Louisiana at one time, transmitted at least partly by blacks. There are unverified (by me) reports of one or two extremely pidgin-like speakers among the Jena Choctaw.

Among the Elton Koasati (Coushatta), English varies from the elegant standard dialect of the tribal leader (not, technically, the chief), who in addition to speaking fluent Koasati can switch into slightly more vernacular English when he wants to, to pidgin-like structures of the nature We no see too much goose down dere (my field notes) from a speaker in his sixties. The same speaker, who is a good representative of the traditional culture and who served as informant for a linguist who made a description of Koasati, makes, among other objects, the traditional blow gun, which he always refers to as a blew gun. This speaker who has a high degree of variability in shifting speech styles, uses something very like preverbal been: I been born and raised 'round here. He also uses zero copula14: Tell me where he at or The bear so mad. (In a tale in which most verbs are marked for past tense.) As in the case of the zero copula form cited above, the informant uses non-redundant past tense marking much the way described for Black English in Loflin, Sobin, and Dillard (1973): The men started running when [the bear] coming.

Koasati, otherwise, is the most flourishing of the Louisiana Indian languages, although they are in a sense immigrants, having arrived in 1764. There are about 350 fluent speakers. All or most of them capable of using English well, and the younger generation is completely bilingual.

Besides its relationship to Mobilian Jargon, Choctaw is the Louisiana Indian language most usable and used with out-of-state Indians, both in Oklahoma and in Mississippi. Dialect differences have been noted but are apparently no great barrier to communication. The Jena Choctaw tribe, which numbers about 150 who hold on to certain tribal customs, has at most twenty fluent Choctaw speakers. (This is unfortunate, since the chief once defined a Choctaw, in a newspaper interview, as one who speaks Choctaw.) Of these, four speakers are Choctaw dominant; i.e., more proficient in that language than in English. A somewhat ill-fated attempt to revive Choctaw was made in 1977, with an adviser from an applied linguistics program and great reliance on the dictionary by Byington (1915). The program seemed not to simulate any interest among the children, and therefore was marked almost automatically for defeat--although several of the younger adults were deeply involved. Nevertheless, according to H.F. Gregory (personal communication), the few Choctaw speakers do maintain the language in a wide variety of contexts.

Awareness of English pervaded the Choctaw- learning program in one session at which I was a consultant. Great embarrassment was exhibited at a request for the word for turkey, / fakit /, apparently because of its resemblance to an obscene English phrase. Great variation in the pronunciation of Choctaw was recorded in my field notes: several forms were accepted, others rejected when the notes were read back. Still, I am not perfectly sure that the transcriptions were inaccurate. Attitudinal factors may keep the speakers from acknowledging variants which actually do occur, at least from some speakers. English varies greatly according to context within the tribal group: I transcribed both (pUtI) and (prEtI) "pretty" from the tribal chief, the former in informal and the latter in formal speech.


It may seem strange to accord Spanish the place of a minority language in Louisiana, considering the historical importance of that language. Despite its widespread popularity as a school language (students have for generations perpetuated the idea that it is "easier to pronounce" than French or German), rather few Louisianians seem to feel any loyalty to it. There are not, for example, state historical markers in Spanish as there are in French (bilingual with English). Many students come to LSU and Tulane from South America and Puerto Rico to study law and medicine, and there are large numbers of Spanish speakers in ESL programs throughout the state, but none of these seem to use much Spanish with native Louisianians. The Indian groups of the past used Spanish, mixed in one way or another with Mobilian Jargon and perhaps some other lingua franca;15 but, although rumors of Indian-influenced Spanish persist, actual speakers are difficult to find. One may also locate Filipinos from former stilt settlements in lower Barataria who speak the language.

Isleño decima singer Josephine Acosta by her home altar, St. Bernard Parish. Photo: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

The historically most important variety of Spanish in Louisiana is "Isleño," spoken by a large group in St. Bernard Parish. These speakers of what must have been a blend of Spanish dialects for maritime use--comparable to the Maritime French discussed by Hull--had strong influence on the Spanish of Puerto Rico (Alvarez Nazario 1972). Despite a strong element of African influence (Alvarez Nazario 1974). Puerto Rican Spanish resembles that of the Canary Islands more than any other variety. Relying on MacCurdy (1950), Alvarez Nazario (1972) finds a great resemblance to Louisianian Spanish. In the long run, the similarities can hardly be explained in any way except by the postulation of a Maritime Spanish. A kind of Spanish revival is very active in St. Bernard parish at this writing.

In northwest Louisiana, a community of over one hundred Spanish speakers around Ebarb reveals, according to Gregory (personal communication), little or no knowledge of the vocabulary treated by Alvarez Nazario and MacCurdy. These may be immigrants from Mexico. Another group around Spanish Lake, variously reported as between a dozen and fifty, claims to be from "'Spain," and field interviews were able to identify one word, pezcuezo 'neck', which agrees with the Isleño vocabulary. This is admittedly unimpressive evidence for the use of the Isleño dialect in the Spanish Lake area. In families where names like Flores are pronounced / flor-I-yz / ("floor-ease") oral traditions are perhaps not entirely trustworthy.

An entirely new group of Spanish speakers from the circum-Caribbean has arrived in Louisiana over the last twenty years--although New Orleans as a port city has received Spanish speakers since the eighteenth century-beginning with an influx of Cubans and followed by Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, black Hondurans, and a variety of their nationalities. Each group, depending on ethnicity and class, has produced different dialectal variations of Spanish. Taken as a whole, they are a more active speech community in terms of number and use among younger people than the Isleño's or northwestern border speakers.

Italian, Yugoslavian, Hungarian, And German

There are many people of Italian descent in Louisiana, but little information on the use of the language. Said to be largely of Sicilian extraction, they tend to locate in the larger cities; fairly well-informed estimates report as many as 50,000 of them. It seems that the usual immigrant pattern prevails: only people over fifty seem to use Italian to any great extent, although the next younger generation can probably understand a great deal.

Of the many Slavonian Louisianians in the lower delta parishes (St. Bernard and Plaquemines) and New Orleans, "Yugoslavian" is spoken. Most of these people are of Dalmatian extraction and speak what is known in ethnic rather than national terms as "Serbo-Croatian."

A substantial number of Hungarian speakers came to Albany in Livingston Parish around three generations ago. Interviewees make varying claims about the use of the language, from the rather fantastic statement that some 2,700 people still speak Hungarian to the rather more realistic one that only the older generation really speaks it and the young adult generation understands a little. One thirty-eight year old informant claimed to be "sort of fluent," but admitted the need to resort to English vocabulary frequently. A few of the older people also speak German, bringing along some of the language situation of the old country. Nelson (1956) studied the English of the group. He found many phonological influences, especially more from Hungarian than from Southern dialect. Using only six informants, held to be "representative of the community," he reported to no one's surprise that the influence of Hungarian was stronger on the speech of older informants.

There is even less precise information on German speakers in Louisiana, although it is well- known that Germans were prominent among nineteenth-century settlers. Many of them quickly underwent language shift, becoming les Allemands. One German professor reports contact with farmers around Eunice who spoke "archaic" German (Ihr for Sie, e.g.). Other sites for potential speakers are Roberts Cove in Acadia Parish and a few neighborhoods in New Orleans.

Vietnamese and Other Asians

Perhaps the most recent group of non-English speakers is the Vietnamese, of whom some 12,000 have come to Louisiana after the surrender of the southern part of their country. They tend to congregate around New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Gulf Coast fishing areas, although a few students stray up to northwest Louisiana. A fairly large number of the oldest Vietnamese use some French, dating from the time when French was the official language of the country, and there are probably a few speakers of Tâv Bôy. The majority speak Vietnamese in all age groups, though the parent and older generations are most likely to be monolingual. It is not known--although it would be extremely interesting--whether Vietnamese speakers of French varieties have any extensive contact with Louisiana French speakers. There are also reports of Asians from various nations in the shrimp trade along the coast, and of course there are some speakers of Chinese and Japanese in Louisiana.

Although English is clearly the language of official, public, and commercial usage in Louisiana, the observer who looks beneath the surface will find the great diversity of French Cajun and French Creole, Spanish, Indian languages, Black English, a variety of Upland South, Tidewater and Deep South Anglo dialects, as well as the languages of immigrants in the last one hundred years from Italians and Dalmatians to Vietnamese. Add to this the urban New Orleans and riverine Irish Channel or "Yat" accents as well as many other sub-regional, familial and personal variations, and we have a linguistic situation as rich and complex as the music, food and architecture for which the state is also renowned.

A Note On Transcription

In dealing professionally with language, and perhaps especially with dialects, it is often impossible to adhere strictly to the conventional orthographic system of the language. This may be especially true of a variety like "Gumbo" French Creole, which has no official writing system. Transcriptions used by linguists are based on the Roman alphabet, as is ordinary English spelling, but special, more consistent pronunciation values are attached to each character ("letter"). The adaptation of the Roman alphabet most usually employed is called the IPA \ Inter- national Phonetic Association), and transcriptions according to that system are enclosed in square brackets \[ ]). Very many symbols, including numerous diacritics, may be utilized with the IPA framework; but linguists long ago realized that it is impossible to transcribe "exactly" what a speaker says. Thus, the "phonemic" principle developed, whereby sound units having a significant (contrastive, in the traditional system) function for the given language were closed in slashes (/ /). See foot note 7. In quoting linguists like Raleigh Murgan, I have used exactly their transcriptions, including, in Morgan's case, tilde (~), which is the transcription for nasalization. If a linguist like Morgan uses both / an / and/ ã /, he means that there is a significant difference, capable of distinguishing units like words, between the two sequences.

Louisiana French Creole: Subregion and Urban Centers of Use.

In one place in my own transcription of Black English, I have used the IPA transcription / d? / because the interpretation is subject to argument. (The pronunciation is about what popular writers would spell '"duh.") Specifically, another linguist might interpret what I have written as [ d ] as phonemic / t /, asserting that the change in pronunciation from the citation form of the word ("voicing") can be explained in terms of adjacent sounds, an extremely common phenomenon in language.

There are also more recent phonological theorists who question the validity of the contrast approach that supports phonemic transcription, and who utilize some type of systematic phonetic approach. Most anthropological linguists--and all, so far as I know, who have worked on Louisiana dialects---have used the older system, however. For this reason, and to avoid further complication in what is certainly not a simple matter. I have avoided these more recent questions of phonological theory.


1. Most historians of European languages in the New World (and Africa, etc.) are now agreed that groups of sailors from, e.g., England, on becoming part of a ship's crew to go to the Americas, would not be able to continue speaking their regional dialects. They would form a sort of compromise with speakers of other dialects of the same language who came from different areas and often had greatly different native dialects. This is one kind of "maritime" language. Another is a pidgin, which is a simplified version of the European language used in a multilingual rather than a multidialectal situation. Pidgin languages were often subject to secondary influence from non-European languages, especially West African languages. Pidgins were often "creolized"; that is, they became the only, or major, useful language of a speech community and thereby the native language of that community.

2. This designation is often shortened to couri-vini.

3. Although the non-professional linguist seldom notices it, especially in his native language, redundancy is built into all grammars in one way or another. For example, the English sentence: "Those three boys all have bicycles" signals in four ways that the subject is plural: those (plural of that), three, boys (plural of boy) and have (plural, where a singular subject would take has). Handbooks of usage do not attack this kind of redundancy because it is characteristic of Standard English.

4. A "leveled" dialect is a kind of compromise between different dialects, also sometimes called a koine. See fn. 1 concerning the maritime dialect, the result of such a leveling.

5. A "calque" is the filling of a slot in one language with material from another. The English speaker who knows very little French and says, Je suis vingt ans vieux for "I am twenty years old" has indulged in several calques from his own language. In contact language situations, this calquing often becomes relatively permanent.

6. As would be expected, World War II had an even greater impact on the French speakers.

7. A phoneme is a contrastively significant sound in a given language. Since English bowels and vowels are not the same, we can say that / b / and / v / are different "phonemes" In English. Spanish speakers sometimes confuse the two words because Spanish does not have the same contrast. In the studies referred to in this essay, based on contrastive phonemics, the English "th- sound" would be considered to be two different phonemes: / e / in think and / e / in then. These procedures are not the latest word in theoretical phonology by any means, but they are still used, for convenience at least, in primarily historical studies.

8. The principal reason for this problem is that many, perhaps most, Louisiana Indians do not live in tribal groups on reservations. Gregory (personal communication) has indicated frequently that there are many more Indians in Louisiana than are recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

9. A lingua franca is a language used especially in multilingual contact situations, where some compromise language has to be adopted. It may be the language of one of the speakers (like English, when a speaker of that language talks to a group whose native languages are Cajun French, Spanish, etc., in this country today) or it may be a special language developed for the purpose, like a pidgin (see fn. 1).

10. Network Standard is the dialect of newscasters on national television and of most actors, except some comedians, on the same medium. Network Standard closely resembles what the schools often call '"good" English.

11. The dozens (also called '"jonin" and various other things) is a kind of traditional verbal duel involving insults. Those insults often relate to the sexual behavior of the opponent's relatives, with the most telling insult being against the other's mother.

12. Morphophonemic variation refers to the kind of out-of-awareness variation which is common in structures like the "regular" past tense of English verbs. The "-ed" ending is pronounced with a vowel plus / d / in wanted; as / t / in washed; and as / d / in showed. Most monolingual speakers are not aware of such factors until they hear a foreigner who tends to use the vowel in all of these; want-ed, wash-ed, snow-ed. It is the same kind of variation, basically, and most of us are more easily aware of it, that makes us say sent and not send-ed.

13. The creolist theory of black English asserts that the same thing happened with the English of the slaves as happened with French Creole (see footnote 1). A pidgin language used in the slave trade became the native language of slaves, especially field hands, on the plantations.

14. A copula is what the school grammars call a "linking" verb: "The bear is mad. / The bear was mad." When no overt verb form is needed as in a lot of pidgin and creole and in some "natural" languages like Russian), we refer to "zero copula." It is characteristic of Pidgin English and of black English) that zero copula may occur in either a present-tense or a past-tense situation. Information about the relative time of the action is provided by other cues in the discourse, such as time adverbs.

15. See Gustav Dresel's Houston Journal, translated from German and edited by Max Freund, The University of Texas Press, 1954, p. 137. The original German edition, as well, contains Mobilian Jargon shockema, "good" and Spanish, plata 'silver.'


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