German, Irish, and Italian immigrants in Louisiana

Although most attention has been focused on French in Louisiana, several other European languages have also been very influential in Louisiana’s development. German has been present since the early days, the first settlers being a few hundred people from the Palatinate region who settled upriver from New Orleans in the early 1720s on what was called the German Coast (the Côte des Allemands). During the 19th century, millions of Germans passed through New Orleans on their way to the Great Plains, and many thousands decided to stay. During this period German theatres and social aid societies flourished. A later German settlement was established in Roberts Cove, near Rayne, in the late 1880s.

The German language is in fact a grouping of many related dialects and can be divided roughly into High (from the inland highland) and Low (from the low country) varieties. Standard German is a type of High German, as are Yiddish and Amish German. Low German exists on a continuum with Dutch; the dialect spoken traditionally in Berlin is a form of Low German. Both High and Low German were brought to Louisiana — the earliest settlers from the Palatinate spoke High German, and the settlers who established Roberts Cove were primarily Low German speakers. Just which dialect the bulk of the settlers to New Orleans spoke is hard to establish, but family names on tombs in the city suggest that some Low German speakers were represented in the sample. German heritage continues to be celebrated in Louisiana, particularly via annual Oktoberfest celebrations in Roberts Cove and at the Deutches Haus in New Orleans.

Another important immigrant group that is often footnoted in the story of Louisiana is the Irish. Irish immigration began in the early 19th century; large numbers of Irish immigrants fleeing the Famine settled in New Orleans mid-century, and would have a significant impact on the cultural scene. Today there is still a neighborhood known as the Irish Channel. These immigrants were largely literate (Kelley 2004), and while they quite possibly spoke Gaelic, they also brought with them a distinct variety of English, contributing to the ongoing Anglicization of Louisiana.

Finally, around the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans saw an important Italian immigration. Italian appears to have lingered in the New Orleans area well into the 20th century (Shane Lief, personal communication November 20, 2012). The linguistic effects of these three major immigrations are hard to firmly establish; Reinecke (1985: 60) suggests that the use of “by” as “to be at” in the New Orleans expression “by my mama’s” is the result of German influence. It is possible that the working class New Orleans dialect known as Yat is the result of the influence of these three immigrations, much as the similar dialect spoken by working class New Yorkers, which resembles it, was the result of a similar mixing of ethnicities . Another possibility for this similarity, however, suggested by Labov (2007), is that the similarity between these two dialects is the result of contact between these two cities via their ports.