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Linguists have traditionally recognized three French-related speech varieties in Louisiana. Different names have been given to these varieties, but they will here be referred to as Louisiana Creole, Louisiana Regional French, and Plantation Society French.

Plantation Society French

Plantation Society French, which was widely spoken in Louisiana until the late nineteenth century but has now virtually disappeared, resembles Referential French in its grammatical structure, though it may differ from it in pronunciation and in the use of some words. The name ‘Plantation Society French,’ which was first proposed by Michael Picone (Picone 1998), highlights the crucial role that Louisiana’s plantation economy played in maintaining this variety in the region. The wealth created by the plantation economy attracted continued immigration to Louisiana from France and other French-speaking regions (especially the former French colony of St. Domingue, re-baptized Haiti after the slave revolution there) and allowed Louisiana families of French origin to maintain contact with their ancestral home and to provide a French-language education for their children, either by sending them to private schools in Louisiana or by sending them to France to be educated. It was these strong and enduring ties with France and other parts of the Francophone world that contributed to a flourishing of French-language journalism, literature, theater, and opera in nineteenth-century Louisiana.

Louisiana Regional French

We use ‘Louisiana Regional French’ to encompass a range of varieties spoken throughout Francophone Louisiana that are more distinct from Referential French than is Plantation Society French, but that share a great many features with regional and informal varieties of French spoken in France and elsewhere in the Francophone world. What we call ‘Louisiana Regional French’ is often referred to elsewhere as ‘Cajun French’ (see Why Louisiana Regional French?). It is spoken by members of several ethnic groups, including African Americans, Creoles of color, whites, and some Native Americans.

Louisiana Creole

Louisiana Creole is further removed from Referential French in structure than is Louisiana Regional French, and it shares a great many features with the other French-based creole languages of the world. Although it was once widely spoken in the
plantation areas along the state’s major waterways, Louisiana Creole is now restricted to a few zones. The largest of these lies along the Bayou Teche in lower St. Landry Parish and St. Martin Parish, but the language is also still spoken in the parishes of St. Tammany, St. James, St. John, and Pointe Coupee. While traditionally associated with African Americans and Creoles of color, Louisiana Creole is also spoken by many whites.

Referential French

Referential French denotes the type of French that is described in major reference works such as dictionaries and grammars. It generally serves as the standard for use in formal contexts and in writing.

‘Cajun.’ ‘Creole.’ ‘French.’ What’s in a name?

We have just seen that there are three main types of French spoken in Louisiana. But the labels we have applied to them—‘Plantation Society of French,’ ‘Louisiana Regional French,’ and ‘Louisiana Creole’—are not those used by Louisiana Francophones themselves. Some of the most common language labels heard in Louisiana include ‘Cajun,’ ‘Creole,’ and ‘French.’ Yet the specific types of French to which these labels refer vary according to the speaker and the context.  ‘French’ tends to be used in a general way to refer to any type of French, as long as the context does not call for any further specification. When Louisiana Francophones want to distinguish their spoken French from Referential French or from the French spoken elsewhere, they typically make use of other labels, such as ‘Cajun,’ ‘Creole,’ or even ‘broken French.’ This last label reflects the unfortunate, but widespread feeling that the French spoken in Louisiana is somehow defective and is not ‘good’ or ‘real’ French.

But in order to understand the different ways in which the labels ‘Cajun’ and ‘Creole’ are used, it is first necessary to understand that there is a strong link between language labels and ethnic labels in Louisiana, such that people often use identical terms to refer to themselves and to the language that they speak. Thus, people who identify themselves as ‘Cajun’ very often call their French ‘Cajun,’ as well, even though in some cases it may be something that is linguistically closer to what we call Louisiana Creole. By the same token, Francophones who consider themselves Creoles typically also apply the label ‘Creole’ to the type of French they speak, regardless of whether it is, from a linguistic point of view, Louisiana Creole or Louisiana Regional French. In western St. Landry Parish, for example, self-identified Cajuns and Creoles speak the same kind of French—the variety that we refer to as Louisiana Regional French—but the Cajuns typically call it ‘Cajun’ and the Creoles typically call it ‘Creole.’ Something like the converse situation exists in Pointe Coupee Parish, where Louisiana Creole is the only French-related variety still spoken today. It is spoken by both blacks and whites, and while the most common label for the language is ‘Creole,’ many whites who consider themselves Cajuns also refer to their type of French as ‘Cajun.’

Why ‘Louisiana Regional French’

It is because of this strong link between ethnic labels and language labels that we prefer to use the ethnically neutral term ‘Louisiana Regional French’ to refer to the variety—or group of varieties—that is often called ‘Cajun French’ in writings about French in Louisiana. As an ethnic label, ‘Cajun’ is usually used only in reference to whites. Yet, as we have seen, Louisiana Regional French is also spoken by many African Americans and Creoles of color, as well as by some Native Americans, who do not consider themselves Cajuns. It seems inappropriate to use such an ethnically specific label to refer to a speech variety that is widely spoken by people who do not identify themselves as members of that ethnic group. Indeed, some non-Cajun speakers of Louisiana Regional French vehemently object to their speech being labeled as Cajun.

A legitimate argument could be made that, for similar reasons, the label ‘Louisiana Creole’ should also be replaced with a neutral alternative. After all, the term ‘Creole’ is also closely associated with an ethnic group that does not encompass all of those who actually speak that variety. While this is true, we choose to retain the label for two reasons. First, it usefully underlines this variety’s many similarities to the other French-based creole languages of the world that are commonly referred to by that label (e.g., Haitian Creole, Martinican Creole, Mauritian Creole, etc.). Second, while it is true that the term ‘Creole’ as an ethnic label in Louisiana today most often refers to people of African descent or of mixed race, it has historically been used—and in some part of Louisiana still is—to refer to white people, as well.

References:

Klingler, Thomas A. 2003. If I Could Turn My Tongue Like That: The Creole Language of Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Picone, Michael D. 1998. Historic French diglossia in Louisiana. Paper read at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics, at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana, 26-28 March.





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