Cajun French -- Full Linguistics' Circle

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This article will trace the rare sociolinguistic triumph of what the French Cajuns in Louisiana have done to reverse the decline of their minority language and to resist the typical trend of linguistic assimilation by the monster ‘language killer’ – American English.
  • 1. The Full Linguistics’ Circle of French Cajun<br /> Birth – Assimilation – Recovery<br /> Richard Binkney, Ph.D.<br />The Full Linguistics’ Circle of French Cajun -- Birth - Assimilation - Recovery<br />Two modern linguistics researchers, Carlsen and Voegelin & Voegelin), estimate that from a peak of 20,000 languages there are approximately 6,000 – 7,000 extant languages spoken in the world today. The Enduring Voices video presentation indicates that every 14 days another language dies on this planet; and, it is predicted that by the year 2100 one-half of the existing languages will be dead also. Turin reports that 476 million of the world’s illiterate people speak minority languages and live in countries where children are for the most part not taught to read, write, and speak in their mother tongue (62).<br />Many linguistics experts, including Crystal and Valdman, have placed the French Cajun language of Louisiana on the list of endangered or dying languages. In fact, Canagarajah reports that Jerah Johnson even predicted the precise time of the disappearance of the Cajun language as 2010! Of course, his prediction-- made 23 years ago, has not come true. The focus of this paper is two-fold: First, this research will examine the origin of the unique French Cajun language and will study its assimilation by the dominant language of the United States of America. Second, this research will trace the rare sociolinguistic triumph of what the French Cajuns in Louisiana have done to reverse the decline of their minority language and to resist the typical trend of linguistic assimilation by the monster ‘language killer’ – American English. This research will go full circle in linguistics’ inquiry: birth, assimilation, and recovery of the French Cajun language in modern-day Louisiana. <br />The Cajun language of today is a rich mixture of French, Native Indian, Haitian, Creole, and English which is spoken primarily in the southwestern “prairie” of Louisiana. According to “The Cajun Country” online article, the State of Louisiana’s Department of Recreation, Culture, and Tourism defines “Cajun Country” as “lying within a triangle whose base is the Louisiana coast and whose apex is near Alexandria in the central part of the state.” This geographical territory is called the “Cajun homeland,” which includes: Avoyelles Parish, Evangeline Parish, Lafourche Parish, Acadia Parish, Jeff Davis Parish, Cameron Parish, and Vermillion Parish.<br />Linguistically, the Cajun French of today finds its origin in the Acadian language as descended from the mixture of dialects found in the provinces or kingdoms of Anjou and Poitou during the days of the French crown. The history of Cajun French as a culture dates back to the period of time when the early British colonial setters were leaving England for religious reasons to come to the newly discovered lands in America (e.g., Jamestown, 1607). Interestingly, at almost the same period of time in European history, this group of Catholic families in the ancestral estate region also left their homeland to avoid religious persecution. Both Daigle and Dartz report that these generationally devout French Roman Catholics sailed west, landing eventually in the Canadian settlement of Port Royal in Acadia, currently known as Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. The new land in Canada was called Acadia by the French, after the Greek word Arcadia- - the mythical land of beauty and wonderment found on the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece. The Canadian new French frontier was renamed Nova Scotia (New Scotland). The “Cajun French” online article indicates that the word ‘Cajun’ is described as being an Anglicization of ‘Cadien,’ which, in turn, is a shortened and softer pronunciation of ‘Acadien.”<br />According to Daigle, these French Catholics wanted desperately to keep and maintain their French language, religion, customs, and traditions. They tried to live in peace with their English-speaking neighbors in their newly adopted homes in North America; however, religious persecution against the Roman Catholics followed them, for the second time. According to “The Cajun French” history, “The British repeatedly raided the Acadians: killing inhabitants, stealing their farm animals and grain, and burning their homes, barns, and churches.” They lived in the Quebec area with this terror for 150 years. In 1755, with war impending with both France and England (the French and Indian War), Governor Shirley became alarmed that in case of a French invasion they were likely to side with the enemy. According to the “Cajun Country” online article, British authorities “demanded that the French Acadians renounce their Catholic faith and swear allegiance to the British Crown.” Thus, the French Catholics were expelled [again] from their [second] homeland [by their oppressive overseers]. Dartz maintains that “The Acadians [were] guilty of nothing but loyalty to their church, and [having] a country that did nothing to help them…. The British Canadians forced them on ships, burnt their homes; families were separated and sent to different parts of the world.” In the online article “By Any Means Necessary,” Blum described the deportation and treatment of the refugees by the English colonists as “unnecessarily cruel.” American history books accurately describe this linguistic estrangement and forced exile as the “Grand Derangement” – the deportation of the Acadians. Many of the brave French Catholics, looking for religious freedom, boarded boats again and sailed south, landing in the “prairie” quadrant of southern Louisiana – a fertile region of primeval woods and swamps dominated by the Mississippi River delta environment, culture, society, and economy. <br />By the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Sexton determined that the new French colony in the recently acquired state was “decidedly Francophone.” Subsequently, Sexton found that over the next 100 years the Americanization of Louisiana trended toward “conversion to ethnic minority status.” In fact, Sexton concluded that a “rapid nineteenth-century decline of the public and private use of French…suggest[ed] strong linguistic assimilation of the Louisiana French by 1900.” The abandonment of French as the primary language of communication followed a pattern of linguistic genocide that Spolsky views as typical of the status of political and official bans for most minority languages engulfed by a dominant majority language. <br />Spolsky describes three developments that happen when a majority culture or language wants to ban another (minority) language: The first development is the bias of the majority language’s school system towards a non-standard or otherwise “disfavored” minority language. Spolsky says, “This kind of policy is usually associated with a (misguided) desire to improve the lot of minority students by having them use the standard or otherwise desired variety. “ To Spolsky, replacement language, “well-meaning though it may be, is a common method of linguicide.” <br />The second kind of development Spolsky sees in linguistic oppression involves the political suppression of a minority language in public schools. This usually occurs by political mandate for using the majority language or the governmental ban of any minority languages. The third type of language suppression occurs in an effort at majority language maintenance. The example Spolsky gives for this effort, in the attempt of suppressing the French speakers in Quebec, is the British subjects’ of the Queen’s English attempt “to slow down or reverse the shift from French to English.” A repetition of this attempt to suppress French occurs almost annually by the British or English-speaking purists in and around Quebec.<br />Spolsky views the most challenging question addressing banned or restricted minority languages to be: “Is the desire to maintain a threatened language justification for banning the source of the threat? “ In other words, Spolsky seems to say: In regard to the British protectors of the Queen’s English in Quebec , and the American advocates of Standard American English who rail against Cajun French, Ebonics, and Native American languages – “are they justified in the promotion of their mother tongue purely at the expense (i.e., demise) of the minority language? “ This paper and the evidence of the stability and existence of the thriving Cajun French language and culture today in Louisiana totally reject that premise.<br />For much of their history in France, Canada, and in Louisiana, Barnard explains that the people we now know as the Cajun French were often ridiculed as “backward, ignorant” and unpatriotic.” Most of that scorn was heaped on the Cajuns by Protestants who abased the devout Frenchmen’s strong will to maintain their devout Roman Catholic faith. Living in a country that fought so desperately for its own language and independence in 1776 -- Barnard adds that it did not help mutual cultural relations for Americans to find the French Cajuns speaking a “separate language” and living “a life-style that emphasized isolation and separation from” the newly emerging United States of America. The assimilation of Cajun French was reinforced by the Louisiana Board of Education in 1916 through the Mandatory Attendance Act in which French-speaking students were required to attend English-only public schools. Further, in 1921, the online article “By Any Means Necessary” reports that the state constitution mandated: “The general exercises in the public schools shall be conducted in the English language.” Thus, the nationalistic purge for linguistic oppression of the Cajuns took the form of institutional correction. <br />Native Cajun, Brent Daigle, Ph.D. is a descendant of the famous Roman Catholic priest, Father Jules O. Daigle, who published the first Cajun – English Dictionary in 1985. Dr. Daigle recalls the story of his Great-Great-Grandmother, LaFeur, who attended the public schools around Elton in southern Louisiana in the 1930s. At that time, the federal government was in the mood for Americanization and American acculturation of the minority French Cajun language. The assimilistic educational reform measures from the federal government were so severe that all the Cajun-speaking teachers in the normal schools were fired. Newly imported English-speaking teachers from around the United States were hired through a huge advertising campaign that promised these new teachers a 20% pay increase. About the only requirement to get hired as a teacher was that you were required not to be able to speak Cajun or French. Daigle says that all of these English-speaking teachers came into the Louisiana Cajun territory solely to make the native students learn English and to make the low class Cajuns become Americans who spoke English only.<br />Daigle’s grandmother remembers vividly how some of those English-speaking teachers punished the Cajun children for speaking their native tongue. For example, at recess time, the native speaking children naturally broke into conversation with the normal casual Cajun sing-song. The punishment the teachers devised for those who spoke the native language was to put rice on the wooden classroom floor and make the students kneel on the floor for long periods of time. This punishment terrified the Cajun children into submission by speaking English only at recess. It was common for English-speaking teachers to use ruler slaps on the palm or back of any child who spoke Cajun in the classroom. LaFeur told her family that the indentations on her knees from kneeling on that horrible rice-covered classroom floor were still burned into her legs and her soul.<br />Ryon recalls the humiliating first-hand testimony of a native French Cajun student experiencing the reality of linguistic assimilation who had to write these endless repetitions:<br />I will not speak French on school grounds.<br />I will not speak French on school grounds.<br />I will not speak French….<br />[Well, they are not stupid, those bastards.<br />After one hundred times, it begins to penetrate<br />In anyone’s mind.<br />It hurts, it brings shame;<br />And suddenly, it does not hurt anymore.<br />It is almost natural.<br />And we don’t speak French on the school grounds<br />And anywhere else either.] (287).<br />We know this type of behavior today is called deficit correction – however, these authoritarian methods of linguistic assimilation and emotional intimidation did not work then, and they do not work now. Nevertheless, because of these horrible incidents that punished the native speakers, Cajun French almost disappeared in Louisiana – and it was secretly taught only in the home.<br />As language loss occurred among the French Cajuns, Barnard found other significant linguistic and cultural changes to the French Cajuns occurred with the advent of World War II. Thousands of Cajuns served in the American military forces around the world, where they were exposed to many different international languages, customs, and cultures. Barnard credits the Americanization of Cajun country to a combination of cultural, economic, and societal events: the introduction of the television (1950s), the national interstate highway system in the United States (1970s), and the world-wide trend toward mass communications, rampant consumerism, the jet age, and educational improvements of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Added to these developments, Barnard says: “the advent of rock and roll music (1950s) and other national cultural trends …led to a sharp reduction in traditional Cajun habits” (2).<br />The online article “The Cajun Bayou” reported that the number of people who spoke Cajun French declined over the last fifty years of the twentieth century. Sexton reasoned that some of the reasons for the success of the linguistic assimilation were attributed to settlement patterns, population density, and the maintenance of social networks and institutions that inhibited language shift from French to English. As “The Cajun Bayou” online article concluded, it became clear that many parents intentionally did not teach their children the Cajun language to encourage English language fluency -- in hopes that the children would have a better life in an English-speaking nation. By the 1960s, in an interesting parallel to the civil rights movement, regional efforts were emerging that moved the Cajuns toward a revival of their native language and culture. In 1968, the Louisiana legislature authorized the establishment of CODOFIL, an acronym for ‘The Council of the Development of French in Louisiana.’ The online article “By Any Means Necessary” states that this cabinet-level department, “empowered to do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization and preservation of the French language as found in the state of Louisiana for the cultural, economic and tourist benefit of the state – LA R.S. 25:651-2000.<br />By the last quarter of the twentieth century, according to “The Cajun Bayou” online article, a tide of regional pride and linguistic dignity engulfed the Cajun natives who discovered that their grandchildren were researching and trying to learn the native language, often in secret. In a marvelous sociolinguistics reversal, the French Cajuns in southern Louisiana valiantly resurrected the pride in their native Cajun tongue and initiated efforts to save the endangered French Cajun culture. In 1998, the online article “By Any Means Necessary” found that there were twenty-five immersion schools in eight of the Acadian parishes where students learned and used their native Cajun French in “at least half of their classes.” Later, CODOFIL initiated scholarships to Louisiana teachers to study French abroad. <br />This “Louisianification” of the “Cajun Country” continued as the entire state became the beneficiary of the linguistic and cultural resurgence of French Cajun. Teacher recruitment programs to find French-speaking teachers led to the requirement of students to study French as a second language for at least five years in all public schools. In addition, the “By Any Means Necessary” online article confirms that adult literacy classes have been made available at no cost to the native Cajuns.<br />Currently, one of the popular ways to promote second language acquisition occurs as many children are first introduced to the native tongue through Cajun music lyrics. Also, there is a trend to use Cajun language websites to learn the dialect, advertise the culture, and promote regional tourism. The “Cajun Bayou” online article says that culinary words and terms of endearment such as “cher” (dear) [pronounced “shah” or “sheh”] and “none” (uncle) are still heard among otherwise English-speaking Cajuns. In a valiant effort to fight further language loss, Marchand presents the passionate embodiment of Cajun linguistic pride as expressed by a sign posted on the wall inside a native Cajun’s music and accordion shop in Eunice, Alabama:<br />So you tell me that you can’t speak French even though you have lived in a French speaking area all your life. You say that you have never learned because no one every showed you. Yet somehow you managed to become a normal, stereotype clone of Anywhere, U.S.A., even though no one showed you that either. BULL____” I’ll tell you why you can’t speak French. It’s because as you were growing up, you were too busy pursuing mundane trivia making fun of those who did speak French that you could never find time to recognize the beauty of your heritage. You turned your back on a hot bowl of gumbo in favor of a cold, tasteless American hot dog. Now that Cajun culture attracts worldwide attention you have decided to be Cajun also. That’s fine but don’t make a second mistake and try to take credit away from the people who kept the torch lit when Cajun was a dirty word. I pledge myself not to let that happen (392-392).<br />According to the “Profile of Selected Social Characteristics” online website of the United States Census of 2000, a total of 725,197 (or 16.2%) of the residents in Louisiana claim to speak some form of French at home today. Even with this encouraging increase of the Cajun population in Louisiana, it is important to note that CODOFIL’s primary interest is to preserve Cajun French. Many Cajun speakers today can understand French, according to the online website “By Any Means Necessary,” but Cajun is “almost incomprehensible to standard French speakers.” This linguistics fact is complicated further with the recognition that Cajun remains basically an oral language and few, if any, efforts have been made to put Cajun into a written language. According to Ryon, four linguists and two community members are working currently on a comprehensive dictionary of Cajun French. With this emphasis on the revival of the values and traditions of Cajun French, there is the hope that, one day, someone of Cajun descent will finally put the wonderfully expressive words and the spirit of the people and their culture into a written language. <br />The last sixty years have dramatically affected the French Cajuns in their homeland of southern Louisiana. The strong Francophone community has endured enormous hardship to become the life blood of the entire state now, with the famous Cajun language, music, food, culture, and spirit that is recognized and appreciated world-wide. Linguistically, their community has been miraculously transformed from a once endangered minority language to become an example today of the rare linguistics’ feat of revival of the French Cajun native language and culture. Over the past 400+ years of three homeland relocations, the forces of assimilation and language loss ha
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