Connie C. Eble

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


From French to English in Louisiana: The Prudhomme Family's Story

When the United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803, the dominant language was French. With Americanization came the English language. By the time of the Civil War, English had largely displaced French in public discourse in most of the state and in the city of New Orleans. Only in the relatively isolated Acadian area of southern Louisiana did French have dominance over English. This paper examines the shift from French to English in the area of earliest French settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory, around the town of Natchitoches in northwestern Louisiana. It is based on the family papers preserved by the descendants of the merchant Jean Pierre Philippe Prudhomme, who came to the Natchitoches area in 1716. The Prudhomme family became prosperous planters. In 1821 they moved into a house on the banks of the Red River where subsequent generations lived until the 1990s. The house and some of the land are now owned by the National Park Service as part of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The Prudhomme family papers (about 16,375 items), dating 1765-1997, occupy 41 linear feet in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They include plantation journals and accounts, slave records, legal papers, files of the plantation physician, and a wide range of items related to the social and non-business interests of the Prudhommes, such as school lessons, greeting cards, invitations, recipes and remedies, and letters. This paper will focus on the 19th century, noting the types of writing and the chronology of the shift in language. It will also examine texts for kinds and amounts of code switching. The 30 letters from one teenager to her cousin a few miles away, written in the late 1850s, for example, are almost all entirely in English, a few sentences in French appearing in two or three. Around the same time, a mother in the family writes to her son, "mon cher fils," in French. The language history of this one family gives a fuller picture of the historical and contemporary variety of language in the American South.

Prudhomme Family Papers (#613), Manuscripts Department, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.