French and Creole in the Nineteenth Century: The Transformation of the Linguistic Landscape

Having reverted briefly to French control in 1800, the Louisiana colony was sold to the young United States in 1803. Paradoxically, it was during the first decades of Louisiana's American period that French language and culture reached their zenith, as French newspapers, literature, theater, and music flourished. It was at this time that what Michael Picone has dubbed "Plantation Society French"-a variety closely resembling modern Standard French-came to have a strong presence in Louisiana. The name reflects the fact that the presence of this language variety was made possible in large part by the wealth of the plantation economy based on sugar and cotton, which attracted continued immigration from France and other former French territories and also made it possible for wealthy Louisianans to educate their children in French and to maintain their ties with France through travel. The most significant francophone population to come to Louisiana's shores in the nineteenth century were some 10,000 inhabitants of the former colony of Saint-Domingue-present-day Haiti-who, having left to escape the Haitian Revolution, made their way to Louisiana in 1809 and 1810 after several years spent in Cuba (though smaller numbers had already settled in Louisiana in the two previous decades). Approximately one third of this population consisted of whites, one third slaves, and one third free people of color. Their arrival significantly augmented both the French- and the Creole-speaking populations of Louisiana. Moreover, many of these former inhabitants of Saint-Domingue were highly educated and made major contributions to the cultural, economic, and political life of Louisiana, and of New Orleans, in particular. For example, Louisiana's first French-language newspaper, Le Moniteur de la Louisiane, was founded by refugees from Saint-Domingue, as was the Collège d'Orléans. Among the notable literary achievements of the early nineteenth century were numerous French-language novels, including Mercier's L'habitation Saint-Ybars, and Armand Lanusse's famous collection of poems by Free People of Color, Les Cenelles, published in 1845. The economic devastation wrought by the Civil War would bring these cultural developments to an abrupt halt, sending French language and culture in Louisiana into rapid decline.