African Languages in Louisiana

African languages made their way to Louisiana with the arrival of the first slave ships in 1719. During the French period, most Africans arrived in the colony between 1719 and 1731, with most of the passengers from the Senegambia region of West Africa. We cannot be sure of the exact origin of the people brought to Louisiana in this manner, but we can guess at their origins from records of the port from which slave ships departed with their cargo. While many of the languages Africans likely brought with them were related to each other and were sometimes mutually intelligible (notably, many were likely speakers of Manding languages, in particular Bambara)(Midlo-Hall 1992), they nonetheless introduced dozens of languages to Louisiana’s linguistic mix. During the Spanish period (1762-1800), Louisiana underwent a re-Africanization as the Spanish brought in new waves of enslaved people from the west coast of Africa. This time, the new arrivals were more often natives of areas slightly further south on the coast, and included important numbers of speakers of such languages as Yoruba and Fon. Given the relative mobility of enslaved people during non-working hours in Louisiana under the French and Spanish regimes, it is possible that many people continued to speak their native languages even as they picked up French and created Louisiana Creole. There is evidence that African languages continued to be spoken into the 19th century (Midlo-Hall 1992). Only a handful of words of African origin made their way into the European languages of Louisiana, however. The most notable examples, still in regular use today, are gumbo and gris gris. African stories, such as the stories of Compère Bouki and Compère Lapin (Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit in the English-speaking South; Bouki means “hyena” in Wolof), on the other hand, survive to the present. The influence of African music on modern American music is also well known.