I was asked several times to comment on the recent NY Times article, “In Louisiana, Desire for a French Renaissance,”published on 15 February 2015. It’s a subject very close to my heart and I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life in some way involved in promoting and DEVELOPING the language my maternal ancestors spoke when they arrived here from France in 1742 and continued to speak exclusively until the late 19th century.
I will do my best to write in a way that makes sense to anyone not familiar with the subject because it is infinitely complex, complicated, and filled with emotion. Much of what I have observed and learned is in many ways contradictory to what is stated and implied in this article not only by the author, but also by those who were interviewed.
Because their views and relationship to the French language have all been shaped in white anglo-saxon protestant contexts.
But what exactly does that mean?
It means that we must understand how French-language identity was expressly deconstructed in Louisiana and how heritage language speakers were forcibly assimilated into the American mainstream and the English language.
The first thing to address is nomenclature. It is incorrect and *ex-clusive* to use the ethno- racial label “Cajun” to identify the French spoken in Louisiana. The linguistic authorities that published the “Dictionary of Louisiana French as Spoken in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities” [University Press of Mississippi; 1st edition (November 12, 2009)] intentionally entitled the work as such to underline the ethno-racial diversity of French speakers in the state.
This simply means that people who now identify as “Cajun” are NOT the only francophones in Louisiana. In fact, anthropologist Carl Brasseaux of ULL identifies no less than 18 (yes, EIGHTEEN) different groups of people in Louisiana that can claim a French or Creole- speaking background in his book “French, Creole, Cajun Houma: A Primer on Francophone Louisiana.” This makes Louisiana home to what might well be the most diverse mosaic of franco-créolophone culture in the world.
Check this. Ratio to ethnic population, the largest group of French-speakers in the state today is the United Houma Nation, of which 40% of the 17,000 tribal members report speaking French in their daily lives. Yes. As a population, Indians speak *more* French than Creoles and Cajuns.
The second challenge is to understand the difference between LINGUISTIC identity and ETHNO-RACIAL identity. Primary source documents written in French throughout the late 18th century and up until the Civil War use the term “créole” to distinguish native-born francophones and créolophones (be they White, Black, Native, or In-Between) from Americans and foreign-born residents (from any linguistic background, including francophone).
French-speakers of Acadian descent were often referred to as “Créole,” which again, was a place-based, linguistic designation. If Acadian descendants were specifically referred to as such in French, the word “Acadien” was used; the contraction to “Cadien” was considered extremely pejorative. The common LINGUISTIC identity in French was thus tied to the word “Créole.”
Things began to change rapidly when French Créole Louisiana was occupied by White Anglo- Saxon Protestant federal troops during the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction Period, a time span of nearly 20 years. As the Créole elite, both White and Black, tried to find their footing in this new American paradigm that was defined by RACE and ETHNICITY and not by language, culture, and class, they began to integrate these anglo notions of identity and separated themselves from their common Créole identity that had been defined by their shared language. Idem the Acadians on the River and in the outlying areas to the south and west of New Orleans and the River Parishes.
Racial stratification continued to occur throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century (“Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization; 1992), further isolating the diverse groups from their common linguistic identity in French.
The third MAJOR challenge is that there are hardly any monolingual, trans-contextual Louisiana francophones still alive. EVERYONE who speaks French is bilingual and is an English-speaker FIRST; most of those who speak French can only do so within certain contexts; they are what can be described as partial speakers who were educated in English.
So, their relationship to the French or Créole they speak was shaped in English. They were taught in school IN ENGLISH that their native heritage language was “broken French” and therefore unintelligible to francophones from elsewhere, which is obviously not true.
I cannot state this strongly enough. If French speakers in Louisiana post-1921 had had access to public education in French, the textbooks would have come from France and education would have been delivered in standard French in the same way public education in English is delivered in standard English. The debate that has raged for the last 50 years about “Cajun” vs. “Standard” French would be moot. Vernacular would have been retained at home in social situations and standard registers would have been learned and applied in educational, professional, and other appropriate contexts.
The English-only public education mandate that was promulgated in the 1921 state constitution was applied to ALL heritage language speakers in the state : the francophones, the créolophones, the hispanophones, the germanophones, and the native populations.
It did not target “Cajuns” as is so often portrayed. It targeted ANY AND ALL heritage language speakers.
Another important point is this… it did not make heritage languages “illegal.” It made English the only language of public education and it RELABELED heritage languages as “foreign languages.”
So, people who had been here for generations and centuries before the American anglophone recolonization suddenly became foreigners in their own place. Furthermore, because schools were also RACIALLY segregated, the whites, blacks, and natives who spoke French, Creole, Spanish, or other heritage languages were FURTHER segregated and isolated from each other and their common language(s).This divide and conquer tactic continues to work quite well, since today “Cajun” and “Creole” have evolved into ethno-racial identities far removed from the French and Créole languages in which they were born and which historically intrinsically bound these people together.
In 1970, there were fully one million people in Louisiana who spoke French. They represented Ɖ of the population of the state. As a unified LINGUISTIC group, they could have exerted considerable economic and political power. This was obviously not in the best interests of the American anglophone status quo. They HAD to be divided, conquered, and forcibly assimilated. Today, estimates put the number of franco-créolophones at 100,000 +/-.
In the last 45 years, the number of French speakers in Louisiana has decreased by 90%. Linguistic erosion mirrors that of the coastline.
I have to say I vehemently disagree with the idea that a “national language” should be instituted in the U.S. There were heritage language speakers here BEFORE the arrival of English. Officializing English would surely be the nail in the coffin for any remaining heritage languages in the country.
Since 1921, we have been taught about ourselves from an outside perspective in a language that was not our own.
THIS IS HOW LINGUISTIC IDENTITY IS DECONSTRUCTED AND FORCIBLE ASSIMILATION IS IMPLEMENTED.
What then is the future of the French language in Louisiana?
For many of the reasons outlined above, native heritage language speakers did not speak “their” French or Creole to their children or grandchildren and we are now reliant on immersion schools or French-as-a-second-language classrooms to transmit the language to schoolchildren.
Challenge : These children are 99.9% fully assimilated anglophone Americans with no French language reference points for identity. Many don’t identify as “Cajun” or “Creole” because they simply aren’t, either genealogically or culturally.
How then do we create an inclusive Louisiana francophone linguistic identity for them when: 1) they speak English at home and socially
2) their teacher is usually a francophone from abroad (France, Belgium, Canada, Africa, etc.) 3) their curriculum is developed from an American anglophone perspective (Louisiana Purchase vs. Sale of Louisiana) and translated into French
This would take a considerable amount of work from the university French departments to work collaboratively with the education departments and the Louisiana Department of Education to develop a Louisiana francophone curriculum from an INCLUSIVE Louisiana francophone perspective. Despite my best efforts when I worked at CODOFIL, this is not yet a foreseeable project and collaboration.
Challenge : Re-development of contextual uses of the language outside of the classroom.
Challenge : There are no real professional opportunities in French in Louisiana beyond the education sector. In order for there to be DEVELOPMENT of the language, there simply MUST be economic opportunity. As of today, there is not a single, solitary position in state or local government where it is mandated to speak French or where someone is economically valorised for speaking the language.
Challenge : Unless people accept that the only path to survival and DEVELOPMENT of French in Louisiana is to move PAST ethno-racial labeling and TOWARD the creation of social, educational, professional, and economic opportunities in the language, it will become a purely academic pursuit within the next 25 years as the older generation disappears.