Louisiana Creole Language

Canada is not the only place in North America where French and English are spoken. We have our own, Louisiana, right here in the United States. Louisiana is not only a State with a rich multicultural heritage, but it is also a polyglot State. Louisiana Creole (LC) is one of three French-based languages that coexist with English in what is referred to as Acadiana or Francophone Triangle, a region west and southwest of New Orleans that stretches to the Texas border.

A Brief history of Louisiana

On April 6, 1682, Sieur de La Salle, the first French explorer to sail down the Mississippi River to the point where it flows to the sea 1, planted a cross in the mud and claiming for France the entire river basin, from the Appalachians to the Rockies.

La Salle named the area Louisiana, in honor of King Louis XIV. La Salle’s settlement fell victim to starvation and the threat of the Indians and the Spanish, but the French Crown’s desire to establish a colony in the Gulf of Mexico remained very much alive and, thirteen years later, France once again ventured into North America.

In September of 1698, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville and his teenage brother, Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, sailed from the port of La Rochelle, France,  en route to America. Their mission: to explore the lower Mississippi River region with the goal of establishing a colony for the Sun King, Louis XIV.  On March of the following year, Pierre and Jean-Baptiste noticed a stick dyed with animal blood on a bluff high above the river. They believed this stick to be a marker that divided the hunting grounds of two Indian tribes, the Bayagoulas and Oumas. Appropriately, Pierre named the region “Baton Rouge” (Red Stick). Then, As the brothers continued sailing North, they came across the point where the winding Mississippi cut across the base of one of its bends on the way to the sea and called this “Pointe Coupée” (Cut-Off Point). From there, Pierre d’Iberville led a group of settlers to the east side of what is now Biloxi Bay – opposite the site of the present day City of Biloxi, and established Fort Maurepas. This was the beginning of France’s second colonization venture in North America.

lamapSieur de Bienville continued exploring the Mississippi River while his older brother, Sieur d’Iberville, sailed to France in search of additional provisions and settlers. Charged with looking after the settlement, Jean-Baptiste faced insurmountable challenges. The settlers had come to North America lured by the prospect of becoming rich by trading furs and mining and were not interested in life-sustaining activities, like farming. Besides, the soil was not fertile. To make matters worse, native Indian tribes were not friendly, and fatal diseases, like malaria and dysentery were rampant. Before long adversity bred discontent and discord. The news of a colony in distress reached the Crown, who swiftly replaced Bienville with the merchant Antoine Crozat, Marquis de Chatel. In 1712 they conferred upon Crozat a monopoly of commercial privileges in the entire territory between New Mexico and the Carolinas and the territory on the banks of the Mississippi and its tributaries for 15 years. Louisiana would thus become a proprietary colony and Crozat its first proprietor.

The colony was flanked by Great Britain on the East and Spain on the West. France, always a rival of Great Britain, decided to face the British threat by approaching and they opened trade with Spanish Mexico. and in 1714 they sent Juchereau de St. Denis to establish a military and trading post in Louisiana. Juchereau created a settlement on the Red River and named it “Natchitoches”, named after the Indians who had welcomed the French. This was the first settlement on the soil of present day Louisiana. It separated the French and Spanish territories. The Spanish were just 16 miles away, in “Robeline”.

The colony was proving to be a bigger challenge than Antoine Crozat had anticipated. Calculating that he had invested a fortune already with no prospect for a return on investment, he decided to cut his losses and resign the rights to the colony that he had held for five years, from 1712 until 1717. By this time, the French economy was in serious trouble. Taxes were high and the government was deeply indebted. Not ready to give up on the colony, the Crown turned the proprietorship of the colony to John Law, a financier and adventurer from Scotland. A shrewd businessman, Law  managed to convince the regent, Philippe d’Orléans, Duc d’Orleans2 that he could liquidate the government’s debt with a pioneering system of credit founded on paper money. Thus he established the Banque Royale (Royal bank) and, subsequently, the Mississippi Company, or Compagnie d’Occident (Company of the West) as a stock-trading company with exclusive commercial rights in the West Indies and North America. In exchange for exclusive commercial rights in Louisiana the Company was to be responsible for the defense of the colony (maintaining the forts and the troops and providing gifts for the native Indians.). It would also undertake the transport of 6,000 French settlers and 3,000 Africans to the colony over a period of twenty-five years.

Meanwhile, the route from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico was deemed to be too long and Baton Rouge out-of-the-way. Therefore, in 17 18, the French Mississippi Company, led by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville established a garrison along a shorter route to the Gulf, on a crescent-shaped section of the Mississippi river, 100 miles from its mouth, at the point where the distance between the river and Lake Pontchartrain is the shortest. They named it La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) in honor of the Duc d’Orleans. Troop movement was easier from this location, because ships approaching from downriver were forced to slow down and become exposed  to gunfire, therefore it was easier to protect the river and the lower Mississippi Valley. For this reason, Sieur de Bienville declared New Orleans the capital of Louisiana. Surrounded by the river, the lake and swamps, New Orleans almost seemed to be an island, and this prompted the French to refer to it as the “Isle d’Orleans.”

In 1719, the  Compagnie d’Occident, annexed several other companies, the Compagnie de Sénégal, the Compagnie des Indes Orientales and the  Compagnie de la Chine among them, and became known as Compagnie des Indes. The original Compagnie d’Occident had been financed by a financial scheme of John Law, who in 1716 convinced the French Crown to guarantee 500-livre shares, payable only in government notes through the Banke Royale. These shares were sold to investors. The shares of the  Compagnie des Indes sared to 10,000 livres per share by December 1719. Investors were lured by the company’s potential value of trade with French colonies that were supposed to be rich in gold and silver. The Compagnie d’Occident grew rich and annexed several other companies such as Compagnie de Sénégal, Compagnie des Indes Orientales, Compagnie de la Chine. Thus it became the Compagnie des Indes. John Law was by then a very rich man. Unfortunately, the Banke Royale had been issuing as many shares as investors requested, even though they they did not have an equivalent amount of gold and silver-based legal tender for everyone who eventually wished to redeem their notes. They had expected that the deficit would be covered by gold and silver to be imported from America by the Compagnie des Indes. When this did not happen, the bubble burst and the Bank Royale crashed, bringing down with it the French economy that was already deeply in debt and plagued yb very  high taxes. Ruined, John Law fled to Belgium. The crash of the Bank Royale plunged France and Europe into a severe economic crisis, so traumatic in fact, that French financial institutions have avoided theterme “Banque”, in their name, calling themselves  “Credit” instead.  The failure of Law’s financial scheme would also contribute to set the stage for the French Revolution. The colony was returned to the Crown of France, who administered it until 1763, when France turned it over to Spain.

France controlled Louisiana until the end of the Seven Year’s War (known as the French and Indian War, in America) when France was defeated by Great Britain. In February of 1763, according to the Treaty of Paris signed by Great Britain, France and Spain, France ceded all its territories in North America to Great Britain, except for the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and recovered Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies, but had to give Grenada and the Grenadines to Great Britain in return. The British also gained Canada and all of Louisiana East of the Mississippi, except for the Isle of Orleans (New Orleans), which France ceded to Spain along with Louisiana, West of the Mississippi.

The treaty was signed in secrecy, and two years went by before Louisiana colonists learned that they were not French subjects any more. Voltaire expressed his regret over the loss of Louisiana because, as he said, he could not understand how France could give up what he described as the most beautiful climate of the earth, from which one may have tobacco, silk, indigo, a thousand useful products.

Spain would not hold on to its possessions in Louisiana for very long. Under pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte, who envisioned Louisiana as the center of a great French-American empire, Spain returned Louisiana to France. However, when the troops he sent to Louisiana fell victim to tropical diseases and a slave revolt in Haiti, Napoleon became frustrated and abandoned his plans for North America. Earlier that same year, Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States had made a friendly proposal to the French. The United States wanted to purchase Nouvelle-Orléans and the territory to the north and east of the Mississippi. He offered France 2 million in compensation. France would retain the area west of the Mississippi, between Arkansas, the Mexican frontier and the sea and the Mississippi River would separate the territories of the U.S. and France. Jefferson’s envoy arrived in Paris on April 12th with this proposal, only to find out that Napoleon had a deal of his own: “Take it all or nothing.”

LousianaPurchase_Small_trBonaparte was under pressure. He knew that if he refused Jefferson’s offer, he risked a conflict with the United States, who had been an ally, and risked losing the colony. If he accepted, he would be forced to protect an indefensible territory from a British fleet that was posed and ready to strike. Therefore, on April 10th, Bonaparte informed his ministers Barbé-Marbois, of the Treasury and Decrès of the Navy, that he intended to sell Louisiana to the United States. “Je connais tout le prix de la Louisiane et j’ai voulu réparer la faute du négociateur français qui l’a abandonnée. Quelques lignes d’un traité me l’ont rendue et à peine je l’ai recouvrée que je dois m’attendre à la perdre. Les Anglais n’auront pas le Mississipi qu’ils convoitent. Je songe à la céder aux Etats-Unis. Je considère la colonie comme perdue et il me semble que, dans les mains de cette puissance naissante, elle sera plus utile à la politique et même au commerce de la France que si je tentais de la garder “. (I am aware of real value of Louisiana, and have wanted to fix the mistake of the French negotiator who abandoned it. With a few lines of a treaty it has been returned it to me, but no sooner have I recovered it, than I must face losing it. The British will not get the Mississippi they covet. I am thinking about turning it over to the United States. I consider the colony as a loss, and it seems to me that it will be more useful to France politically and commercially in the hands of this growing power than if I tried to keep it.)

The Louisiana Creole Language

Louisiana Creole is classified as a contact language. This is a language that develops when two mutually unintelligible linguistic groups develop the need to communicate with each other. The term creole comes from the Spanish criollo and the Portuguese crioulo, and both from the Latin criar– to bring up, nourish, or a servant born into one’s household. Originally, creole was used for the descendants of Europeans, who were born and raised in a European colony in America, such as the French colonies of Acadie, Louisiana, Nouvelle France (Canada). However, in Louisiana, only the descendants of the first French and Spanish settlers were considered Creoles. Today, the term Creole mainly applies to the mixed languages of these communities.

Unlike other plantations in French colonies in the Americas,  plantations in Louisiana were relatively small. The sugar agro-industry that required hundreds of laborers did not develop in colonial Louisiana.Plantations along the Mississippi had only about 40-50 laborers. Thus, the slaves and the Francophone population  worked side by side in artisan shops and other economic endeavors. This opened the lines of communication between the two communities and a common language developed. The official language of Louisiana was French, but by the 18th century most of the population was less than competent in the standard language, so the linguistic input to the slaves from the Francophone population became less standard and more dialectical.

“According to conventional wisdom, as they tried to communicate with French speakers, the African slaves would be expected to retain French words, but use phonological and grammatical features from their languages. In fact, there is no overwhelming evidence of grammatical features transferred directly from African languages…This is not to say that LC bears no African influence, but that it does not manifest itself mainly as specific features but more broadly in speech rhythm and intonation, in ways of using language, such as extensive resorting to proverbs and verbal play.” (Source: Dictionary or Louisiana Creole).

Examples of Louisiana Creole (Source: Dictionary or Louisiana Creole)

English Louisiana French French (Modern)
He is full of courage. Li plen kouraj. Il est plein de courage.
She has a nice dress. Li gen en bèl ròb. Elle a une belle robe
Rice is good for health. Diri bon pou lasante Le riz est bon pour la santé
I wash it with cold water. Mon lav li ak dolo fre. Je le lave avec de l’eau froide
I have children who speak Creole. Mo gen le pitit ki parl kreyòl. J’ai des enfants qui parlent créole.
The dog was called Jif Ye te pele ti chyen-la Jif. Le chien s’est appelé Jif.
On the table was a pitcher of water which fell on top of my head, it broke in a thousand pieces and baptized me better than a priest could. Sir la table té ein pot dol’eau qui tombé en haut mo tête. Li brisé en mille morceaux et baptisé moin mié qué prête. Sur la table était un pichet de l’eau qui est tombé sur ma tête, il s’est cassé dans mille morceaux et baptisé me mieux qu’un prêtre.
You put it in the microwave, and when it is hot you put it on bread and butter. To mèt li dan microwave-la e kan li cho, to mèt li sir dubœr e dupen. Vous le mis dans la micro-onde, et quand il est chaud vous le mis sur le pain et le beurre.
Things were cheap. I bought some notebooks, some pencils, some inkpens, some paper and some scissors. Le choz te bomache, mo achte de kaye, de kreyon, de creyon a tank, de papye e de sizo. Les choses étaient bon marché. J’ai acheté quelques cahiers, quelques crayons, quelques plumes fontaines, du papier et quelques ciseaux.

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The words of Louisiana Creole are similar to French, but the spelling, structure and grammar differ. For example, nouns have no gender in Louisiana Creole, so articles and determiners do not need to change according to the gender of the noun they precede or qualify.

With twenty to thirty thousand speakers remaining and few monolingual, Louisiana Creole is one of the world’s endangered languages. Louisiana Creole speakers may be found in the four areas highlighted in blue in the map:

  1. Bayou Teche region, particularly Saint Martinville, Breaux Bridge, Parks and Cecilia
  2. New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish, north of Baton Rouge
  3. German Coast along the Mississippi (Saint James and Saint John parishes) between Baton Rouge and New Orleans
  4. Bayou Lacombe and Bayou Liberty in Saint Tammany Parish north of New Orleans

“LC (Louisiana Creole) ranks with LF (Louisiana French) as an indigenous French-related form of speech still surviving in Louisiana. Unlike LF, in particular those varieties that share features with Acadian French from which it has inherited much of its grammar and vocabulary, LC has not benefited from language maintenance and revival efforts. As a result, it is much more endangered…Today; however, LC serves mainly as a symbol of identity for a community that has shifted to English.” (Source: Dictionary of Louisiana Creole, Albert Valdman, Thomas A. Klinger, Margaret M. Marshall, Kevin J. Rottet – Indiana University Press

1 The Spanish Hernando De Soto had discovered the Mississippi and crossed it 140 years earlier.

2 The Duke of Orleans, was the nephew of King Louis XIV. He became Regent of France upon the monarch’s death, while Louis XV, heir to the throne, was still a minor.

References

Dictionary of Louisiana Creole, Albert Valdman, Thomas A. Klinger, Margaret M. Marshall, Kevin J. Rottet – Indiana University Press.
The American Past – A History of the United States form Concord to Hiroshima, 175-1945, by Roger Butterfield.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans%2C_LA
http://pointecoupee.creolewest.com/index.php?page=ehistory8
http://www.pctourism.org/
http://teaching.arts.usyd.edu.au/history/hsty3080/3rdYr3080/Louisiana/lead-up_to_the_purchase.htm
http://flfa.free.fr/cession.htm
http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/ildefens.htm
http://www.madere.com/history.html
http://gallica.bnf.fr/FranceAmerique/fr/D2/T2-2-3-b.htm
http://www.bartleby.com/65/pa/Paris-Tr.html
http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/cabildo/cab3.htm