Sylvie Dubois

Louisiana State University


Whither Cajun French: Language Persistence and Dialectal Upsurges

This paper reports the various sources of linguistic variation in Cajun French, particularly the intergenerational and geographical usage of dialectal forms. We observe the variable usage of long-standing features that coincide with the academic model (il avait [av], encore [kr], aller chez ma mère, ils parlent, il est mort) and others local norms that were frequently used in France during the 18th and 19th centuries and are still used today in several vernacular varieties of French (il avait [ave], encore [kor], aller sur ma mère, ils parlont, il a mouri). (Dubois 2002, Dubois, King and Nadasdi 2003, Noetzel and Dubois 2003) Thus, investigating the evolution of usage patterns in Cajun French requires a systematic and empirical comparison between well-established usages within the Cajun community and the vernacular features in use within the francophone Diaspora in North America, rather than focusing upon the academic variety which plays no functional role in Louisiana.

Our corpus of Cajun French includes 135 speakers from five generations, representing almost a century of Cajun French: the monolingual ancestors (1890-1901); the French-dominant community elders (1905-1915); the seniors (1920-1933), the middle-aged (1935-1951) and young speakers (1957-1977). One striking result is the maintenance of dialectal features across all generations of Cajun speakers, a finding at odds with the linguistic changes that have taken place in Cajun English (Dubois and Horvath 1999, 2003). There were massive sociocultural changes within the Cajun community throughout the 20th century. One linguistic response was the evanescence of bilingualism and the ontogenesis of a dialect of English. The persistence of dialectal features in Cajun French and the linguistic changes in Cajun English suggest that there was little change in the patterns of social intercourse in French while there was robust change emanating from the English discourse interactions. When speaking French, Cajuns are not confronted in their everyday life by someone who does not speak the same dialect, who misunderstands them, or who socially evaluates the way they speak. By contrast, accommodation to hearers is needed in English and there is a marked social motivation for change. There are more English-speaking people than French-speaking people who do not talk like Cajuns. However, the Cajun French community was not an enclave in the 18th and 19th centuries, patterns of social intercourse in French were in flux. In order to determine the evolution of dialectal features in Cajun French, one has to confront important questions about four issues:1) the state of the French language in France during the colonization period; 2) the variety of French spoken in Acadia before the exile; 3) the fate of different French dialects in Louisiana during the 19th century; and 4) the specific constraints in effect within each Cajun community that influence the development of local varieties.