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Sometimes I Start out a Sentence in French et je la terminerai en anglais. Interference and Code-Switching in Louisiana

Romy Heylen
p. 99-113

Texte intégral

1La langue française fut le parler d'usage en Louisiane until the arrival of the Carpet Baggers and their Yankee Constitution in 1868 established an anglophone bridgehead on which future generations were quick to build. By the 1930s, the offshore oil industry had caused anglo immigration to penetrate even the most fiercely francophone areas of the state : the result was the gradual breakdown of the French language. Nevertheless, the idea remains that Louisiana is a « French » state.

2Yet Louisiana was only « French », in the fullest sense of the word — linguistically and politically — from 1682 until 1763, that is to say a period of eighty-one years. So why does the myth persist ? Why does everyone equate Louisiana and the French language ? One reason, perhaps, is that the use of French has withstood all manner of attack from the outside ; it survived the entire period of Spanish rule until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Once Louisiana was admitted as the 18th state of the Union in 1812, one would have expected English to prevail, but in fact Louisiana's francophone populace remained the prime political mover and state statutes were resolutely French-oriented.

3That this remained the case until the mid-nineteenth century was due to the historical and political importance of the established francophone merchant families of New Orleans — the Creoles — and the « Cajuns » of southwestern Louisiana.

4The white Creoles are descendants of those who established and administered the colony of Louisiana in the name of France in the years after its foundation in 1682, and of the settlers who came to exploit the territory's riches in sugar, cotton and silver, attracted by John Law's Compagnie des Indes after 1717.

5In the nineteenth century they were merchants in New Orleans or owners of vast plantations along the Mississippi River towards Baton Rouge, and as such had an important say both in the state's economy and its lingua franca.

6More colonists arrived in the early 1720s to swell the population of the newly-founded city of New Orleans, at the same time as thousands of black slaves who, little by little, came to boost the francophone ranks by learning the French of their masters. These « Black Creoles » played an important part in the survival of French after the Civil War and even today their spoken English is redolent of Gallic sentence structure and word-choice.

7Creole ranks were swelled still further by French citizens fleeing the bloodshed of the Revolution, and by those who had first chosen to sttle the Antilles, but who had been forced to flee ever westward by the likes of Toussaint L'Ouverture and slave revolts in the islands.

8What is more, after 1812, and increasingly so after Waterloo, that is to say at a time when Louisiana had just become a state of the Union, hordes of disgruntled, exiled and beaten supporters of Napoleon came to seek refuge in what was supposedly one of the most fiercely Bonapartist states in America.

9In the thirty years following the Grand Dérangement which began in 1755, the Creoles of New Orleans were joined by the Acadians (or « Cajuns »), a group of native francophones who would, at a time when other French-speakers in Louisiana were under attack from the all-pervasive Anglo-Saxon influence, be shielded from this menace by the fact that they had established communities along the banks of the remote bayous of the south-west.

  • 1  To outline the linguistic history of Louisiana I consulted John Smith-Thibodeaux's book, Les Franc (...)

10It was hardly surprising, then, that the U.S. Congress became profoundly wary of a French populace that at a certain point in history far outnumbered anglophone settlers in Louisiana. Indeed Jefferson even wanted to pass a law to import English speakers into the state1.

11With such a large francophone population during the first part of the nineteenth century, Louisiana remained French at heart, if not administratively or politically. Yet the very size of the francophone community, the successive waves of immigrants and the diverse linguistic and racial groups they represent (for instance, Creoles and Cajuns) can also be posited as part of the reason Louisiana later became vulnerable to Anglo-Saxon influence. The fact that these diverse immigrants never melded into a homogeneous francophone people, that they preserved all the linguistic variants of their various groupings and an almost subcontinental caste system (from the Brahman Creoles to the Untouchable Cajuns), made them more vulnerable to the attack of a standardized English idiom which came at them from all sides (given their inability to defend themselves by presenting a united front).

12It was not until after 1812, when the definitive historical move to statehood was made, that Louisiana began to be vulnerable to the Anglo-Saxon influence from the North. When it became a state of the Union, Louisiana began a slow, painful process of what may be referred to as « disen-french-isement ». Politically, this process was speeded in 1864 when English was declared the only official language of the state

13Focusing on the phenomenon of translation, this article attempts to illustrate how the struggle for linguistic and cultural hegemony between French and English has been and still is being played out in Louisiana.

14Surrounded as they are by the vast anglophone community that is America, and besieged by English-language radio and TV signals, books, newspapers and advertisements, both the francophone Creoles and the Cajuns of Louisiana are forced to live translation on a daily basis. To illustrate this peculiar linguistic and cultural situation I have chosen to examine various texts that capture their translational predicament : newspapers, stories and examples of (militant) poetry from different time periods and different stages in the struggle to preserve a francophone voice in Louisiana.

15Even in the early nineteenth century, before Louisiana became a state, the Creoles of New Orleans found themselves in a society which was rapidly becoming bilingual. The Louisiana Courier, which was founded in the city in 1803 and survived until 1860, constitutes an excellent example of the bilingual tradition in New Orleans which reached its zenith around 1820, and declined steadily with the advance of English throughout the pre-war years up to 1860.

  • 2  John Smith-Thibodeaux, Les Francophones de Louisiane (op. cit.), p. 32.

16The Louisiana Courier consisted of a French section, the Courrier de la Louisiane, which supplied the majority of articles for translation into English in the second section of the newspaper. Most of these articles concern imperial decrees, Napoleon's projects and proclamations, city ordinances, shipping news and the latest developments in Europe which are followed in detail. At first, this newspaper was published three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which presumably gave the staff enough time to translate the articles, which were originally written in French, into English. Hence, news items were generally written in grammatically correct French and English. For the purposes of this article it was more illuminating to examine the classified section where New Orleanians sent in their own (unedited) advertisements, and in which interferences are much more obvious2.

  • 3  All texts referred to in this article appear in Appendix A.

17French businessmen, and even the sheriff, published their announcements both in French and English. But when they translated their messages into English they tended to follow French word order and most often opted for words with Gallic roots in English as well. The following examples, which are taken from the November 13, 1811 issue of the paper, indicate the strength of French influence in New Orleans at this time — as well as the economic power of the Creoles — and reveal multiple French interferences both in English syntax and vocabulary3.

18In Johnson & Dorsey's sale announcement the French text is translated verbatim into English : « 500 Barrels superfine Flour, received by the ship Marmion, from Baltimore... » English speakers would normally not specify that the Marmion is a ship, nor would they say « the ship Marmion ». They would most probably use the phrase, « transported by » or « on the Marmion ». Similarly, the English sale notice published by the sheriff follows French word order : « ... will be exposed for sale... 10 Barrels of Cherry Bounce... » which translates the French « il sera expose en vente...10 barrils d'eau-de-vie de cerise ». In a more regularized English syntax the French impersonal expression « il sera expose » would be replaced by a passive construction in which the direct object is mentioned first : « By order of this writ 10 barrels of Cherry Bounce...will be exposed ». In Yves Leblanc's notice to the public we are informed that « he draws profiles perfectly well resembling by the mean (sic) of a physiognotrace ». No doubt he could draw perfect portraits with the help of a physiognotrace. Moreover, his English perfectly well resembles the French word order of his original message. A few spelling errors aside, he also « keps (sic) always a complete assortment ». English speakers would put the adverb in front of the verb : « he always keeps ». Nevertheless, the expression « various Umbrellas of the most elegant forms and sizes » does not correspond to a literal counterpart in the French text. Here Leblanc seems to have picked up enough English to feel comfortable with a non verbatim translation. The last sentence of his English text likewise could be termed a « free translation ». But again French interference sneaks in : « His store is always in St Peter's street ». Although the French text does not mention a « toujours » Leblanc transcribes a « still » through interference with his French as « always ».

19The most obvious example of French interference in an English text can be found in J.L. Duperron's advertisement for his dancing academy. The formal style of a French public notice of this type is taken as a model and transposed word for word into English : « J.L. Duperron, junr. has the honor to offer his services to the public... Having hitherto used his utmost exertions to deserve esteem, he flatters himself that he will meet with that encouragement which he will always endeavor to merit »(my underlining). Not only does Duperron impose French syntax and word choice into English, but he also adheres to a French formal code which, hardly functions in an anglophone business environment. In other words, French interference is seen here not only noticeably on the linguistic level but also on the socio-economic and cultural level. We have all observed that the written business code in English is far less formal and verbose than in French. Still, Duperron, junior « continues to be a professor of the French & English languages, make translations, and act as interpreter ».

20These examples show that French interference in the English spoken by the Creoles in New Orleans was a common phenomenon. By the mid-twenties the Courrier de la Louisiane appeared daily and towards 1830 no articles seem to be translated any longer, but separate news items, articles and advertisements were printed in French and English. Whereas the French section largely contained articles linked to European events as well as the serialization of French original prose work, the English section focused on business reports and American events or international news which concerned America's foreign policy.

21What one can see quite plainly from these examples is how, in 1811, French influence was so strong that the English language was subject to interference from French. Towards 1830, however, English had become dominant enough for translations to be no longer necessary in the newspaper. The Creoles had begun to reserve their French for family, entertainment and cultural purposes, and relied increasingly on English for business. By the time English was declared the official language of Louisiana in 1864 they had almost completely ceased to function in French for official purposes. Today one sees the logical result of this practice. French has been virtually eliminated in the city of New Orleans as a means communication, except when it surfaces in the colloquial use of English, as follows :

« Walk on the banquette and not the street » (instead of « sidewalk ») ;
« Go and sit outside on the veranda » (instead of « porch ») ;
« For supper, we are having paneed meat » (instead of « coated with breadcrumbs ») ;

  • 4  Eric Waddell, French Louisiana : An Outpost of L'Amérique Française, or Another Country and Anothe (...)
  • 5  The informant who provided me with these expressions is Gloria Harris, secretary of the Department (...)

22« Oh, she's passé blanc » : as Eric Waddell points out, the practice of fair-skinned créoles de couleur assuming white identities (« passing ») has a long history in Louisiana. Such people are termed passé blanc4. These interferences are not limited to nouns and adjectives but also occur in verb constructions, for instance, « She made 13 years old today » and « We pass a good time »5. Moreover, the humor of Louisianian (Creole or Cajun) jokes often lies in the differences in meaning between the same word as used in French and English ; in « mistranslations » ; and in misunderstandings or loanshifts of word meanings.

  • 6  Edna Morrison Scatterty, « Pointe Coupée Folk Tales » in Revue de Louisiane/Louisiana Review (1973 (...)
  • 7  Edna Morrison Scatterty, op. cit., p. 103.

23In her article, « Pointe Coupee Folk Tales » Edna Morrison Scatterty recounts many jokes revolving around interferences between French and English plays on words6. Several of her puns are based on the ordinary word pass. The first French she ever learned as a child was « Passez, chien » (Go away, dog). She further relates that a Creole will say, « Héloïse, on your way home, pass by my house. I'll give you a cup of coffee and show you my new dress ». As Scatterty remarks, «the speaker does not want Héloïse to pass by her house, but to stop ». Finally, she recounts the best tale involving the word pass which concerns a car full of high school girls on their way to Baton Rouge. « As they approached the Mississippi River Bridge, one read aloud, "No passing on the bridge", and then asked, « Mais how you going to cross the river if you don't pass on the bridge ?"7.

24It has become relatively rare to find bilingual French-English speakers in New Orleans, even among members of Creole families. What has replaced pure bilingualism is a form of code-switching. John Guilbeau overheard the following conversation between two women meeting in the bus station in New Orleans :

« Oh, you spent the day in the City ? »

  • 8  John Guilbeau, « Folklore and the Louisiana French Lexicon » in Revue de Louisiane/Louisiana Revie (...)

25« Mais yea. We came this morning, et, chère, on a eu ein good time, oui. We stopped at all the stores and saw a good show, et après on s'a fait ein bon r'pas.. It was real nice, mais à c't heure on est fatigué, though »8. The second woman in this conversation is, however, no city dweller. And, hence, it is more common to find this type of code-switching, a shifting back and forth from English to French and vice versa, in the rural parts of Louisiana. Since no new French immigrants came in large numbers to New Orleans, the exclusive use of French gradually gave way to code-switching.

  • 9  See maps of French Louisiana in Appendix B.

26To examine conditions under which French has survived as a language, it is necessary to focus on another area of the state, the bayous and the relatively isolated region of South-West Louisiana. Contrary to popular belief, French Louisiana today, which largely comprises the South-western portion of the state, does not form a monolithic, homogeneous cultural whole. Rather it is a very heterogeneous region, characterized by the presence of numerous dialects of the French language as spoken in different parishes9. Moreover, a particular racial hierarchy makes it difficult to speak of a coherent, ethnically homogeneous group : the francophone population of southwestern Louisiana must be divided, for analytical purposes, into Creoles, Indians and « Cajuns »

27« Cajun » can be taken to refer to the small independent farmers and hunter/fishermen who lived apart from other francophones within an extended nuclear family based along the bayous, making a living largely from the exploitation of natural resources. However the Cajun identity has had to survive several body blows in the past 125 years. In the beginning, the survivors of the Grand dérangement lived in Rousseauesque isolation and simplicity ; a protected, exclusive francophone community in the heart of nature removed from the ebb and flow of state politics. Several acts outside their control changed all of this. Firstly, in 1864, English was declared the only official language of Louisiana in the state's new constitution. Then the Carpetbag Constitution of 1868 made it illegal to hold trials in any language other than English. In 1870 French was forbidden in the schools, even in totally francophone areas, in the interest of homogeneity. If the French speakers managed to survive these opening barrages in the war for language domination, since they could still speak French socially, they would not emerge unscathed from events in the 1930s, when there was a massive influx of outsiders, mostly anglophone Texans and northerners drawn by the oil boom and the development of the petrochemical industry around Lafayette.

28This new influx of outsiders brought about massive infrastructural transformations, new (anglo) schools and Protestant churches, which simply overwhelmed the old francophone social and economic order. It would be erroneous to declare that the Cajun way of life was totally destroyed, since as the resident (white) settlers, Cajuns took advantage of the massive injection of industrial capital to secure significant closed-shop deals for themselves. Families got the contracts to supply the oil rigs with food and non-skilled labor, thereby perpetuating work-groups whose native language was French. Hence French remained a viable social and working language on some, though not all, fronts. Other sectors, in particular the fishing industry, were successfully modernized without displacing the ethnic group. From these few surviving outposts of the French language a remarkable renaissance has been set in motion since 1968, when a series of laws was passed by the Louisiana State Legislature to « encourage the preservation and the utilization of the French language ». The state was declared officially bilingual, French was to be taught again in the schools, French language TV was to be provided and so on. A para-governmental organism, CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) was even established to provide the renaissance with its official « character ». However CODOFIL promote « standard », not ethnic French, and French is now just one of several « minority » languages recognized by the state, which in 1975 passed a new constitution which stipulated the right of individuals « to preserve their historical, linguistic and cultural origins ».

  • 10  Although I shall not launch myself into a discussion of the different writing systems of Cajun Fre (...)
  • 11  Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish between linguistic forms that may have been commonly used (...)

29When studying Cajun literature and culture, one must first of all come to terms with the fact that Cajun French is, both historically and culturally, an « interlanguage » of sorts10. On the one hand, it has retained a considerable amount of seventeenth century French expressions and grammatical features. On the other hand, due to social and technological progress, Cajun French has imported many an English word as well as some of the syntactical elements of that language.11.

30The first example of Cajun French that I should like to examine, « A Cajun Hard-Luck Story », is taken from a series of stories featured in « Du Chicot», a column which appears in Sunday Magazine, published in Baton Rouge. The transcriber, Randy Whatley of Ville Platte, is not a native French speaker, but identifies himself closely with the Cajuns in that he sees himself as a member of a tribe of uprooted people whose intellectual growth and freedom of expression have been stunted by outside influences. He faithfully records the stories of the Cajuns so that future generations might appreciate their robust, Rabelaisian flavor in both the original language and in English translation.

31If this text were to be discussed in a normative framework one would first of all presumably be shocked by the abundance of orthographical errors and ungrammatical structures. However, it must be remembered that the Cajuns seem to have developed their own grammar rules along with an idiosyncratic pronunciation of the language. Whatley, by noting down these idiosyncracies is doing nothing more than filling the role of the faithful scribe/folklorist.

  • 12  South Louisiana French is sometimes also called « là là French » since it is not unusual to encoun (...)

32It is possible to observe the following tendencies on his part : ein seems to have replaced une, whereas in recalls the standard French un. Although vowel changes might be due to the increasing contact with English, diphtongization was also a common phenomenon in 17th century rural French. The strict standard French « concordance des temps » of si-clauses is no longer observed by the Cajuns : « Si il aurait pas de malchance, il aurait pas de chance du tout » (1. 1-3). Expressions or verbs which require a subjunctive in standard French rarely do so in Cajun French, for example : « Il avait peur donc que avec sa malchance si juste il se tirait » (l. 7-9). Verbs are usually conjugated with the auxiliary avoir : « Il a monté dans son chalant, » (l. 11-12), « il a tombé dans le bayou » (l. 20-21). Although this might suggest interference of the English auxiliary « to have », we have to keep in mind that Richelieu sent these French natives into exile before his Académie Française made its influence felt. In other words, we may encounter the same tendency among continental, rural French speakers. Whereas verbs conjugated with être in standard French are represented with a regular past participle, the other group of verbs conjugated with avoir often have the past participle rendered by an infinitive form : « il a emarrer, » « a envaler, » « a haler » « il a nager ». However, Whatley does not represent this tendency consistently. There are as many past participles represented in their standard form as are represented by an infinitive. The relative pronouns qui and « que » are elided in front of a word starting with a vowel : « l'histoire du bouge qu'était... » (l. 5). On the other hand, si il and des in « il a plus des misères » (l. 31) are not marked for elision. Ça fait is a common conjunction to link up thoughts and sentences which, as the English version indicates, appears to mean « so », whereas stands for « then ».12 Remnants of 17th century French are « bouge » (l. 5) (i.e. « bougre » chap or guy) and « aseteur » (l. 32) (now or today). English interference is obvious on the lexical level when the Cajun is talking about relatively modem conveniences. Here the narrator does not have the choice of using either English or French ; he only knows the English word : for example, « ein jog de coal oil » (1. 10).

  • 13  « courrir » could be called a loanshift which through interference from English changed its meanin (...)

33Whatley resisted conversational code-switching into English in the last two paragraphs of his story. Conversational code-switching is, however, a common phenomenon in Cajun French : English interjections, conjunctions or whole phrases are inserted into the French sentence without violating the syntactic rules of either language. Whatley resists this tendency here and transposes the American notions, the English words and syntax into French : « (il) a été à la maison de cour et a qualifié pour courrir pour la legislature... il tient ein office publique » (l. 27-33)13. This appears to be an enormous tour de force : in these instances it is normal for situational code-switching to take place in Cajun French. Whenever language is used to conduct formal business, to talk about American professional or political notions, the Cajuns will easily switch to English, as did nineteenth-century Creoles.

34French interference is noticeable in Whatley's English version. In some instances he transliterates a French expression : for instance, « One day he took a vexation » (l. 6) which translates « In jour il a pris in dépit (l. 6-7) (he got so annoyed). And sometimes he transposes-French word order, as in « the tale about the fellow who was for years poor and sick and unlucky » (l. 5-6) where one would expect the time indication in standard English at the end of the sentence, and the predicate (the way he was) close to the verb « to be » : « the tale of the fellow who had been poor and sick and unlucky for years. » Except for the expression « in a wooded place » which jars with the tone of the rest of the story, Whatley retells the tale in colloquial American English.

35Whatley presents the story first in Cajun French followed by his own English translation. The need for such a translation situation would be, however, extremely slight in South-Western Louisiana. Few Cajuns, with the possible exception of very old people and a number of shrimpers, speak French exclusively. Instead, they find themselves in the schizophrenic situation of being bilingual. Cajuns do not sit down (on a stump or anything else) and translate consciously ; they live translation as forced bilinguals in French and English. Interference from English into French or vice versa, both on the lexical and syntactic level, as well as conversational (within one sentence) and situational (a language shift from one sentence to the next triggered by the social situation) code-switching are much more common phenomena. Whatley's presentation of two versions, one in French and another in English, is extremely unnatural and can only be explained by the fact that he is writing for a Baton Rouge audience which in the main knows English exclusively. Cajuns rather intermingle French and English or switch from one language into another without conscious (as Whatley suggests) translation. The linguistic predicament of many Cajuns has been rendered in a remarkably evocative way by Richard Guidry in his monologue « Hallo, Gramma's Fine, An' Y'All ? » Born and raised in Vermilion Parish, Guidry spoke French because it was the language of most of his relatives. He specialized in French studies at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and now works for CODOFIL as a pedagogical counsellor.

36« Hallo, Gramma's Fine, An' Y'All ? » premiered in 1979. His monologues, strongly influenced by Antonine Maillet's La Sagouine, largely deal with the survival of French in Louisiana and the various problems this has caused both young and old. He shatters the romantic image of the pastoral Cajun, and in his work laughter is always intermingled with tears. Guidry's writing has an essentially oral quality. That he has mastered the spoken language is evident : his texts are made to be narrated and performed. Guidry himself explains that he never thought of the spelling, that he never thought of writing out his monologues or that someone would want to publish them. He wrote them,out so that they could be read aloud on the radio or on stage.

37Since the majority of francophone Louisianians can neither read nor write in French, he preferred to communicate his thoughts and feelings orally in a language that they could understand without effort. When these monologues were presented on the stage or on television they met with enormous success. Guidry describes his work as une couilte, or un patchwork of real stories. Each emotion, each event illustrated in his monologues has been told to him by a person who actually lived through those experiences. Since Guidry's written system may cause the reader some difficulties, a glossary has been attached. Readers are forced to pick their way through a maze of apostrophes and vowel indications which try to capture the quality of the spoken language.

  • 14  See Dégât's poem « Leçon du bon français » in Acadie tropicale (University of Southwestern Louisia (...)

38Throughout the monologue Guidry respects the -ont ending for the third person plural which is a common feature of Cajun grammar. Again, archaic forms abound : s'assir, aussite, icitte, char (voiture), and piastres (dollars)14. Laveuse de plats (l. 14) resembles the French Canadian laveuse (à vaisselle) whereas standard French has opted for lave-vaisselle The Cajun construction après + infinitive occurs several times, and suggests the 17th century rural usage for être en train de. Then again it might indicate the English interference of « after » doing something or « about to » do something : «après nous dire» (l. 3-4) or «après assayer » (l. 8). Furthermore, whereas standard French makes an idiomatic distinction between the verbs « connaître » and « savoir,» most Cajuns have come to use, under influence of the single English « to know, » the former exclusively : for instance, « J'cônais pa si ç'a aidé grand-chose» (l. 101).

39Interference of English seems to occur especially in prepositional constructions and in the second half of complex sentences when the speaker links up two or more subordinate phrases : for instance, « ils avont pas assez pour manger » (l. 12), and « A'savait pas quoi c'était ein portrait» (l. 73). This is not surprising since both prepositions and conjunctions likewise present problems for any foreign or infant language learner. Finally, Guidry uses a pittoresque or metaphorical type of language switching when he uses the words « smart » (l. 9, l. 82) and « Chrissmusse »(l. 31).

40In this example, Guidry tells the story of grand-parents who have been speaking French all their lives and who are unable to communicate with their grand-children, who are only able to speak English. He also refers to the fact that Cajun children were not allowed to speak French on the playgrounds and quickly had to learn English. The same oppressive situation has been related by one of the foremost Cajun writers, Jean Arceneaux, in his poem, « Schizophrénie Linguistique ».

  • 15  Jean Arcenneaux et al., Cris sur le bayou. Naissance d'une poésie acadienne en Louisiane (Montréal (...)
  • 16  CODOFIL organizes presentations of contempory poetry and music, and myriad other competitions (suc (...)

41In the 1980s, French has become more and more the language of literature in South Louisiana. Two editions of poetry, Cris sur le Bayou (1980) and Acadie tropicale (1983) attest the fact that more and more Louisianians are taking up their pens to write in French — twenty-two different poets were featured in those two editions alone15. For many of Louisiana's contemporary writers, the self only exists in French. They even go so far as to protect it behind a pen-name (Antoine Bourque, Dégât, Sylvain de la Forêt, Emile Des Marais, Jean Arceneaux) in order to isolate it from their anglophone self, which belongs to the urbanized, commercialized American Louisiana. The language in which they write is one close to their own variant of the spoken language, whether « standard », « creole » or « cajun »16. In this way they carry on the rich oral (and musical) tradition of their ancestors, by creating a writing system which resembles a parlure. Inasmuch as the new poets create their own parlure they have to take into account the perpetual translation situation in which they live. They constantly exploit interferences and code-switching from English into French and vice versa as a creative means to emphasize the cultural tensions present in Southern Louisiana.

42In « Schizophrénie Linguistique » Arceneaux's anger about the historical situation of Cajun schoolchildren not allowed to speak French on the playground is reflected in his Babelian intermingling of French and English words : « Et on speak pas French on the school grounds/Et ni anywhere else non plus » (l. 12-13). Conversational code-switching often works by taking English conjunctions or whole phrases and inserting them into a French sentence. Arceneaux's poem demonstrates this strategy throughout when he denigrates the former school system and the social and economic situation in which the Cajuns find themselves : He highlights the stereotypical Cajun as being poor and stupid : « poor coonasses » (l. 24, l. 43). Their language is not represented in the media and they are forced to make a living speaking English. Neither is their language represented legally in bilingual bills or in advertising, as is required by law in Canada. When whole phrases are inserted, however, they do not violate the syntactic rules of either language. Very often it is the English phrase which is tagged on as in Arceneaux's poem « La nouvelle valse du samedi au soir » : « Comme si on était toujours in the forest primeval » (l. 7-8). This follows the same tendency in Cajun conversations where the main clause will start out in French but where the dependent clauses of complex sentences will often follow English syntax. Situational code-switching is also prevalent among Cajuns. This takes place when something in the social situation triggers the language shift. Again, Arceneaux's poem suggests this type of code-switching whenever he monkeys American speech.

43Although poets like Arceneaux often mock the interferences and code-switching current in Cajun conversation, they also use them to achieve the highest degree of communication possible. Moreover, what is important to note is that these interferences and switches do not seem to violate the basic syntax of either English or French but occur when the grammar rules of both languages overlap. In other words, interferences and switches themselves are bound to constraints. The Cajuns do not intermingle French and English freely and at random. Rather their language exemplifies the schizophrenic situation of the bilingual as well as that of the translator who knows both the source and target language with which he or she works.

  • 17  Gideon Toury, « Interlanguage and its manifestations in translation » in In Search of a Theory of (...)

44Cajun French demonstrates that « interlanguage » forms are likely to occur whenever and wherever one language is used in some contact with another. As Gideon Toury has pointed out, one of the most common situations of this type is translation, which inevitably puts the translator in the position of bilingualism. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that translations can serve as a source of interlingual phenomena. The occurrence of interlanguage forms in translation follows from its very definition. Moreover, as Toury remarked, there are situations where interlanguage as a whole, or at least certain types or degrees of it, is not simply present in translation, but even preferred to « pure » target language forms17. This is the case with the Cajun culture of Louisiana. Cajun French is an « interlanguage » par excellence ; it does not want to be assimilated into American English nor into standard French. To protect their cultural identity and ecological survival the Cajuns demand the right to construct their own Babel. By availing themselves of this freedom, they come close to Walter Benjamin's notion of the task of the translator. The Cajuns complement both French and English and ultimately may arrive at a partial pre-Babelian language and culture. After centuries of domination by the majority language, English, le Cadjin peut respirer de nouveau.

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1  To outline the linguistic history of Louisiana I consulted John Smith-Thibodeaux's book, Les Francophones de Louisiane (Editions Entente, 1977) and William Faulkner Rushton's book. The Cajuns. From Acadia to Louisiana (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979).

2  John Smith-Thibodeaux, Les Francophones de Louisiane (op. cit.), p. 32.

3  All texts referred to in this article appear in Appendix A.

4  Eric Waddell, French Louisiana : An Outpost of L'Amérique Française, or Another Country and Another Culture (Université Laval, 1979), p. 24.

5  The informant who provided me with these expressions is Gloria Harris, secretary of the Department of French and Italian at Tulane University in New Orleans.

6  Edna Morrison Scatterty, « Pointe Coupée Folk Tales » in Revue de Louisiane/Louisiana Review (1973), vol. 2, n° 2, p. 103-109.

7  Edna Morrison Scatterty, op. cit., p. 103.

8  John Guilbeau, « Folklore and the Louisiana French Lexicon » in Revue de Louisiane/Louisiana Review (197-2), vol. 1, n° 1, p. 48.

9  See maps of French Louisiana in Appendix B.

10  Although I shall not launch myself into a discussion of the different writing systems of Cajun French, it is important to note that this is a very controversial issue among the Cajuns themselves. The Acadians spoke their language at a time when a « national language » was not yet the political issue it became towards the end of the 18th century, and when the Académie française had only just taken off. Many of the attempts at a written codification of Cajun French are inconsistent and difficult to decipher. Some opt for deviations exclusively meant for the eye (a dialecte de l'oeil) which suggests that the author does not know how to write down his parlure. Others introduce idiosyncratic representations which try to capture the oral flavor of the language but which become confusing and unintelligible. The most extreme representation, which completely undermines the honest attempt to arrive at a written Cajun form, imposes - à la Berlitz — an English pronunciation on the French language, for instance : « eel a ahpre ahronge son shahr » (il est après arranger son char).
Professor Barry Ancelet, who provided me with this example, opposes most written system of « phonetic » Cajun French as awkward and confusing. He seems to opt for a written representation which is closer to standard French but which respects the Cajun grammar or syntax. The emphasis on the orality of the Cajun language and the attempts to capture this aspect of Cajun French are, however, legitimate. Not only do the Cajuns have a rich oral tradition, but they also resist being assimilated by American and French codes alike.

11  Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish between linguistic forms that may have been commonly used in 17th century rural French and apparent deviations from French due to English interference. More research is needed in this area.

12  South Louisiana French is sometimes also called « là là French » since it is not unusual to encounter expression like the following : « Qui est cet homme-là là ? » (Who is that man there, then ?).

13  « courrir » could be called a loanshift which through interference from English changed its meaning, i. e. the opposition with « to walk » has been suppressed here.

14  See Dégât's poem « Leçon du bon français » in Acadie tropicale (University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1983), p. 28.

15  Jean Arcenneaux et al., Cris sur le bayou. Naissance d'une poésie acadienne en Louisiane (Montréal, Québec : Les Éditions Intermède, 1981) ; Mathé Allain and Barry Jean Ancelet, eds. Acadie tropicale (Lafayette, Louisiana : University of Southwerstern Louisiana, 1983).

16  CODOFIL organizes presentations of contempory poetry and music, and myriad other competitions (such as le prix Terriot) encourage young people to express themselves in the French of their choice, be it« standard », cajun, or Creole. Today the emphasis is very much on individual choice of dialect, to encourage the expression of innermost feelings ; something which is very important in a society which has been subject to such external pressures, where the native tongue is driven inside a brain forced to adopt the speech code of technology and « progress ».

17  Gideon Toury, « Interlanguage and its manifestations in translation » in In Search of a Theory of Translation (Tel Aviv University : The Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, 1980), p. 71-78 ; quotations from p. 71 and p. 72

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Romy Heylen, « Sometimes I Start out a Sentence in French et je la terminerai en anglais. Interference and Code-Switching in Louisiana », Palimpsestes, 6 | 1993, 99-113.

Référence électronique

Romy Heylen, « Sometimes I Start out a Sentence in French et je la terminerai en anglais. Interference and Code-Switching in Louisiana », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 6 | 1993, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 1993, consulté le 20 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.761

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Romy Heylen

Université de Caroline du Sud

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