comscore Working toward a French renaissance in Louisiana | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Working toward a French renaissance in Louisiana

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now

VILLE PLATTE, La. » "Qui c’est qui parle?" Jim Soileau asked, his baritone filling the studio of radio station KVPI and traveling across the Cajun prairie.

Who’s speaking?

It was a Monday morning, and the phone lines were open for "La Tasse de Cafi" ("The Cup of Coffee"), one of the last vestiges of French-language talk programming on Louisiana radio.

Soileau, 77, arrived at the station before daybreak to announce the news in French. At 8 a.m., he joined the station’s general manager, Mark Layne, to welcome the voices that began trickling in from the rice farms, tiny towns and two-lane highways in and around Evangeline Parish.

"Qui c’est qui parle?"

Some callers were senior citizens, eager to reminisce in the fluent French they had learned around their parents’ breakfast tables. Some were younger, and clumsier with the language. There were the regular callers, like Buffy from Mamou, who riffed on the news and the weather. There were the merely bilingual-curious and the clever conteurs telling wry tales of Louisiana life and often flip-flopping, like Soileau, from French to English and back.

A fixture at this family-owned radio station since the mid-1960s, "La Tasse de Cafi" serves as a forum for gossip and light amusement, a glorified small-town party line interrupted by Soileau’s love letters to local sponsors like Teet’s Food Store. ("N’oubliez pas les spiciales," he said that Monday, "les cuisses de poulet, chicken drumsticks, five-pound box, $3.45!")

But the show is also a conscious effort to sustain an iteration of French that followed its own evolutionary path here, far from the famed vigilance of the Acadimie Frangaise. Many now believe Louisiana French to be endangered, even as other aspects of the state’s rural culture flourish amid the homogenizing forces of modern life.

"We’re not losing the music. We’re not losing the food," Layne said from his office in Ville Platte, a city of 7,500 about 2 1/2 hours west of New Orleans. "But we’re losing what I think is the most important thing, which is the language."

The issues of language and culture tend to play out in complicated ways in Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, has made a point of warning about Muslim immigrants who have not adapted to Western cultures and about any groups of people who would come to the United States to live in unassimilated enclaves and not learn English. The Cajuns here were once pushed to assimilate, specifically through laws discouraging them from speaking French in school. But today, their culture thrives in a conservative area, where patriotism runs neck and neck with fierce regional pride.

Soileau, for example, said he would be comfortable with English becoming the official language of the United States, but he added, "I think the government should not dictate to you how you should speak."

So his show plays out as a lesson in a language swimming against the tide. According to census figures, Louisiana had more than 250,000 French speakers in 1990; by 2013 there were about 100,000.

A caller asked about a curious verb Soileau had used, cheter. What did that mean? "To beg," he said, noting later that it probably could not be found in the dictionary.

How do you say "groundhog"? How about "chiropractor"?

Soileau, a veteran broadcaster, is recognized as an expert in the art of Louisiana French. His indispensable credential, in a primarily spoken language, is an education at his grandmother’s knee.

For a translation of "groundhog," he improvised: What about a cochon de terre? (Literally, "ground pig," but far from a Paris schoolboy’s likely answer, which would be marmotte.)

As for "chiropractor," Soileau said he might go with un craqueur des os – a bone-cracker.

Layne laughed out loud.

French was introduced to Louisiana in the late 17th century with the first European settlers. It flourished, most famously, here in southwest Louisiana, which eventually became home to many French-speaking settlers, including the Acadians, or Cajuns, who were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the mid-18th century. Many other Louisianans of French descent, both black and white, refer to themselves as Creoles.

The demise of their language was hastened in the last century by mass media, urban prejudices against French-speaking rural people and a mandate in the 1921 Constitution that public schools teach only in English. Many older Cajuns remember being punished for using their vernacular in class.

The late 1960s, however, brought the rise of a Cajun pride movement and an embrace of French cultural roots that continues today, with a statewide French immersion education program that is the largest in the country, serving more than 4,000 students.

But few here believe that is enough to undo the damage. The immersion students are a small fraction of the state population, and two-thirds of the teachers recruited for the program are foreigners whose "book French" may not always square with the Louisiana variety, with its irregularities and Anglicisms. (A truck here is, more often than not, un truck.)

"My generation is partially at fault for this," said Charlie Manuel, 73, a retired insurance agent who hosts the thrice-weekly "La Tasse" on Fridays.

But there is also a hope that efforts like the show, along with a small band of Francophone scholars, activists and Cajun musicians, might nourish the language until it somehow flourishes again.

Barry Jean Ancelet, a renowned folklorist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said French-speaking Louisianans might look to the example of Hebrew, a largely dormant language that was revived by 19th-century Zionists.

"Sure there’s every indication that this is dwindling at an alarming rate," he said. "But there are also indications of remarkable activity and creativity."

The route to linguistic renaissance may be unclear, but in Evangeline Parish, there is certainly a desire to find it. The parish does not have a French immersion program, and in December, the police jury, the equivalent of the county council, passed a resolution asking the school board to consider starting one.

The mayor here, Jennifer Vidrine, recently ordered bilingual street signs for the city, which are set to go up any day now. At Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, the Rev. Jason Vidrine, a distant relative of the mayor who studied French at seminary school in Toulouse, has begun giving his Thursday morning sermons in what he calls "Frenglish."

The celebration of the culture, whether expressed in French or not, pervades towns like Mamou, where locals flock to T-Boy’s Slaughter House for award-winning boudin perfected by the owner, Paul Berzas, who knows which older customers appreciate hearing French as they are served.

Down the road at Fred’s Lounge, traditional Francophone Cajun bands lure packs of tourists, who begin carousing at breakfast time on Saturdays. Soileau notes that many singers learn the lyrics without understanding what they mean.

Over the radio, Soileau plays catch-up, word by word. During a Wednesday show, he and a caller discussed regional variants on the word for rooster, which is un gaime here, but more likely to be un corusse in Houma, 2 1/2 hours southeast. A man named Roderick Thibodeaux called to discuss the word ribondelle, a strip of fabric one might use to tie a tomato plant to a stake.

Another caller told a story about the country music star Porter Wagoner. Someone else recalled a former sheriff, and how well he cooked a duck.

"Un autre call, Jim," Layne said.

"Qui c’est qui parle?"

Richard Fausset, New York Times

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up