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Cajun Language

The Bayou Bandits - Cajun, Zydecco, Creole and the Sounds of Louisiana


The Bayou Bandits - Cajun, Zydecco, Creole and the Sounds of Louisiana

What is Cajun French?

Cajun French is the term generally used to describe the variety of French spoken in South Louisiana. It originates in the language spoken by the French and Acadian people who settled in Louisiana from its early period of European colonization in the 17th century through later waves of immigration into the late 19th century.

Though linguists at one time distinguished between “colonial” French, Acadian French and Creole French, the general consensus today is that colonial and Acadian French have melded to a great degree into a “Cajun” variety which can be distinguished from Creole. However, even Cajun and Louisiana Creole have many lexical, phonological and syntactical elements in common.

Today, the French spoken in Louisiana no longer fits the “three type” paradigm but is better characterized as a continuum along which different speakers can be placed or even move among varying degrees of French which is more or less creolized or cajunized. To complicate matters, different dialects of Cajun French exist in different communities in Louisiana.

Though Cajuns from different parts of the state can usually understand each other when communicating in their local variety of French, certain words, features of pronunciation or syntactical structures can sometimes lead to a bit of confusion. (This might be compared to experiences that Americans have in communicating with British or Australian English speakers.)

Further, because of the influence of factors such cultural tourism, easy access to French language media and modern transportation, more and more Louisiana French speakers are exposed to European and Canadian French through studies or human contact, and they often incorporate “foreign French” terms into their usual language. In short, a precise definition of Louisiana French is not easy to pin down.

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How is Cajun French different from “standard”?

The vast majority of words and structures used in Cajun French would be recognized and understood by fluent French speakers from other countries. Where Cajun French differs from the standard, it is due to a variety of influences similar to those which have caused regional variation in other languages of the world. Here are just a few examples of those influences:

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Language evolution

Change is inevitable for living languages. It would be unreasonable, however, to expect change to happen in the same way in places remote from each other. In some cases, Cajun French has maintained words, structures and pronunciations which the French have long ago abandoned.

For example, Cajuns have maintained the original chevrette to refer to shrimp, while the French adopted the Norman regional variant crevette as their standard word. In other cases, Cajun words or pronunciations have evolved while the French word remained stable. The French recevoir, for example, has become reçoir in Cajun French.

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Language innovation/shift

Speakers of living languages continue to produce new words to describe new realities. Sometimes, they take terms already in existence and change their meaning, a phenomenon known as semantic shift.

When automobiles were invented, the French borrowed the word voiture, which originally referred to carriages, to designate their new “motorized carriages,” while Cajuns adopted the term char, which originally referred to another type of horse-drawn vehicle, the cart or wagon.

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Borrowings from other languages

The French language in France has borrowed from several other languages. For instance, from English there is bifteck (“steak”, from “beefsteak”), from the Hindu and English, we find shampooing (“shampoo”), and from the Spanish word siesta comes sieste (“nap”.)

French speakers in Louisiana also borrowed to add terms to their lexicon.

From the Spanish canica, we have une canique, referring a child’s marble. From the Choctaw came chaoui to name a raccoon, a creature which did not exist in Europe. African languages gave us févi and gombo to refer to “okra”, as well as congo, meaning “black,” to describe the water mocassin, a regional poisonous snake. And of course, numerous English words have found their way into Louisiana French over the years.

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Frequency of usage

Contemporary Cajuns use some terms which are just as not as popular or current in France today as they are in Louisiana. For example, the word soulier would certainly be understood in France, but the French more typically use the word chaussure to refer to “shoes”. The same would be the case for terms such as se tracasser, since s’inquiéter would be much more common in SF to express “to worry”.

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The French language was not "standardized" when the people who would become Acadians left France in the early 17th century. A number of different dialects were spoken in France at the time, and many of these survive even today. Therefore, there existed pronunciations, spellings and verb forms which varied among different speakers.

After the creation of the "Académie Française," certain forms came to be considered as "correct," but the choice of one over another was as often as not arbitrary. French speakers in Louisiana inherited some of these variable forms, since they did not all come from the same regions of France nor did they arrive at the same time.

Furthermore, most Cajuns, especially since the turn of the century, do not read and write French, so that their language did not experience the "standardizing" effect of a written code to stabilize and eliminate certain variables.

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Language attrition

Because members of younger generations in Louisiana don’t hear French as much as their parents or grandparents did, most of them cannot speak the language.

Those who do speak it often have a limited vocabulary and competence in expressing what they want to say. Some researchers, such as Dr. Sylvie Dubois of LSU, study the state of Cajun French as it is spoken today, looking at these intergenerational changes to better understand general phenomena of language loss and evolution. The objectives of that type of research are different from those of basic language Cajun French courses, whose main goal is preservation of the language and its perpetuation among a new generation. Cajun language teachers will therefore tend to be more conservative and normative in their presentations. In other words, they will have their ideas about what they consider "good Cajun French.”

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The Bayou Bandits - Cajun, Zydecco, Creole and the Sounds of Louisiana

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The Bayou Bandits - Cajun, Zydecco, Creole and the Sounds of Louisiana