Michael D. Picone

The University of Alabama


Using the Federal Writers' Project Materials for the Documentation of Language in Louisiana"

From 1936 until 1941 (but mostly in 1940-1941), the Louisiana contingent of the Federal Writers' Project (also known as the Louisiana Writers' Project), mostly working under the direction of Lyle Saxon (1891-1946), recorded life narratives, stories, and lists of expressions taken from interviews with ex-slaves, other African Americans, Cajuns, Creoles of Color, White Creoles, New Orleanians and other Louisianians. These documents informed, and were sometimes excerpted by, Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana (1945). The ex-slave narratives did not appear in print until 1990 (Mother Wit, R.W. Clayton). Many documents in the collection, which is housed at the Cammie G. Henry Research Center, at the Watson Memorial Library, Northwestern State University of Louisiana, in Natchitoches, remain unpublished.

In this presentation, I will briefly recount some of the circumstance surrounding the creation of this collection and the tardiness of the appearance in print of the ex-slave narratives. My main focus, however, will be an attempt to determine the value of this documentation for the purpose of reconstructing linguistic features of an earlier era (for English, French and creole), which has obvious value as a benchmark for contemporary variation. Much depends on the accuracy of the original record of the interviews conducted (assuming the original stage can be successfully identified), especially since, as it will be shown, subsequent revisions and the published versions have often included a significant amount of editing. Criteria for and against the likeliness that the original interviewers were able to accurately capture and faithfully record the speech habits of their interviewees will be considered (e.g., some clues in favor of accuracy: orthographic variations to capture dialect in spite of directives from FWP Folklore Editor Botkin to minimize this kind of representation; run-on and fragmentary sentences; irregular spellings in French were less likely to conform to a preconceived, stereotyped literary eye-dialect than they might have for English, though prior representation of creole probably had a role to play; frequent misspelling by some interviewers inadvertently reveal to what extent they were recording by ear). The relevance of these observations to the Rawick series of ex-slave narratives (The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 1971-1979) will be alluded to.

Some highlights of the presentation include examples of earlier French-English code-switching practices among Cajuns and excerpts from an unpublished ex-slave narrative.

In the last analysis, these materials are probably most reliable when it comes to gleaning attestations of vocabulary items from an earlier era: for example Cajun French chantailler 'to hum', which is in perfect keeping with the high productivity of the -ailler derivational suffix but does not figure in any extant dictionary or published word list of Cajun French or creole, nor in the extensive LADICO database, housed at Indiana University. Examples such as this are not only historical curiosities, but have potential value with regard to lexical enrichment of Louisiana French as part of an on-going initiative of language revitalization.