Indigenous languages

At the time of French arrival, there were many different languages spoken in what is now Louisiana. These languages belonged to several language families, the largest of which was the Muskogean family, which includes languages such as Choctaw, Chicasaw, Coasati, Alabama, and Seminole; at the time of contact in Louisiana representatives of this family included Bayougoula and Houma. In the north of the state, Caddoan languages such as Natchitoches were spoken. There were also several language isolates (meaning these languages have/had no family relationship to any other known language) spoken in Louisiana. These included Chitimacha in the southeastern marshlands (including modern Lafourche Parish), Atakapa in the southwest, and Natchez in the Florida parishes. Some languages spoken in Louisiana in the historic period, such as those spoken by the Tunica, Biloxi, and Coasati, are more recent arrivals to the state; their speakers migrated to Louisiana following European contact.

Today, only a handful of speakers of indigenous languages remain; these include speakers of Coasati and Choctaw. Several tribes have begun language revival programs. The Tunica-Biloxi, for example, are working with linguists at Tulane University to breathe new life into their “sleeping” language.

One of the most important indigenous languages spoken in Louisiana was Mobilian Jargon, a pidgin (a trade language; a reduced code) that during the historic period came to be spoken widely across the South, as far east as Florida and possibly as far north as Illinois (Drechsel 1997: 251). Mobilian Jargon is also known as the Choctaw-Chickasaw trade language given its origins in these two very similar Muskogean languages (so similar that some would call them dialects of the same language). It is likely that the French helped to spread Mobilian beyond the areas in which it was already spoken at the time of contact (Drechsel 1997), but its origins are almost certainly pre-contact (Drechsel 1997). Mobilian Jargon was never acquired as a first language, but it was spoken widely by people from all walks of life: indigenous peoples and Old World inhabitants alike, from slaves to the rulers of the colony (Bienville was notably a speaker), men and women. It was also used for purposes such as ritual greetings within indigenous communities (Drechsel 1997: 262). Given its great importance, it is perhaps not surprising that it survived into the twentieth century, when it was no longer needed given widespread use of English.