French in Louisiana

The first European language to be established in Louisiana was French. This language is dealt with more fully in another course on this site, so I will only discuss it very briefly here. Historically, linguists have recognized three varieties of French in Louisiana: Louisiana Regional French (often called Cajun French), Louisiana Creole, and Plantation Society French (also sometimes called Colonial French). Plantation Society French was a variety (now essentially extinct; if some speakers remain they are very few in number) introduced to Louisiana during the 19th century, when Louisiana saw an influx of bourgeois immigrants fleeing France for political reasons. It is this variety that is also the language of Louisiana’s rich literary tradition, including newspapers and theatre. Early immigrants to the colony, however, were most often speakers of nonstandard and/or regional dialects of French (Brasseaux 2005). Consequently, the French spoken in the early years of the colony, while it bore many resemblances to modern Reference French, was neither its direct ancestor nor the standard of the time. These speakers were joined by refugees from Acadia (today the Canadian province of Nova Scotia) between 1765 and 1785, also speakers of a non-standard (though closely related) version of French. All three of these French populations would eventually intermarry, particularly in the 19th century following the Civil War, and their dialects blend to create modern Louisiana Regional French; it is this variety — in itself regionally variable — that is most often still spoken in Louisiana today.

The other variety still spoken, though by fewer speakers, is Louisiana Creole. Louisiana Creole is the result of contact between speakers of African languages and the early immigrants to the colony — speakers of nonstandard French. It shares nearly all its lexicon with modern Louisiana Regional French, though it differs to some degree grammatically.

Despite the common terms “Cajun French” and “Creole,” LRF may be spoken by people who identify as Creole, and vice-versa. It is common for people to label their language in accordance with the way they identify ethnically, regardless of the linguistic features of that language.

Today, both of the remaining varieties of French in Louisiana are in grave danger of dying out; most speakers are over 60 years of age, and children no longer routinely learn these languages in the home. Efforts are underway across the state to keep the language alive. In any case, French is the language most often associated with Louisiana by outsiders given its historic importance and despite the overwhelming use of English today. French has also had an important influence on the English varieties spoken in Louisiana, a fact we will return to in later chapters.