American Dialect: Louisiana

Last month we covered the dialect of the Southern United States. The Southern dialect is not a uniform one and one can see differences as one moves from region to region in the South. The state of Louisiana, however, is so linguistically rich that we are taking some extra time to examine the French influences on the language of the Bayou State.

Louisiana has one of the richest and most complex regional dialects in the United States. A blend of English, French, Spanish, African, and Choctaw languages contributes to this linguistic jambalaya.

Unlike the rest of the eastern United States, Louisiana was not settled by the English. (OK, Florida was first settled by the Spanish, but there is no significant linguistic heritage from these early Spanish settlers—unlike the more recent Hispanic immigrants to that state). Louisiana was settled by the French. They first arrived in 1682 and Louisiana remained under French rule until 1764, when the territory was ceded to Spain. France got the territory back in 1800, only to sell it to the United States in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase is perhaps the biggest real estate deal in history. The original territory of Louisiana was huge, much bigger than the current territory of the state of Louisiana, but the area actually settled by the French was the area that now comprises the state. The French linguistic and cultural influences were mainly in what is today the state of Louisiana.

There are three distinct dialects of French in Louisiana. The first is Louisiana Standard French. This relic of French rule has become increasingly rare over the years, although can still be encountered in written form and today is used primarily for ceremonial purposes.

Beginning in 1755 and lasting for eight years, large numbers of French settlers were forcibly relocated by the British from their newly captured territory of Nova Scotia. That territory had been called Acadia by the French and these Acadians were exiled to Louisiana. Eventually, the name Acadian was corrupted into the modern word Cajun. Cajun English is an English-French mixture spoken in the twenty-three parishes (counties) known as Acadiana. This is another dying dialect, but a small percentage of those still living in Acadiana still speak it as natives.

The third form of French is another English-French mixture. It is known as Creole (Note: Both Cajun and Creole fall into the broad linguistic category of creoles) and has its roots in the French taught to African slaves in Louisiana. It is largely spoken by African-Americans in the state.

Native French speakers in Louisiana are becoming increasingly difficult to find. According to the 1990 census, about a quarter-million Louisianans speak either Cajun or Creole French as their native language.

These three French dialects are a rich source of dialectical terms that have made their way into Louisiana English. Some of these terms are:

Banquette, n., a raised sidewalk. Pronounced /bankit/, it is from the French for footpath.

Bayou, n., is a slow moving creek or river. It is from the Choctaw bayuk, river, via Louisiana French.

Beignet, n., a type of doughnut, but square in shape and with no hole. It is usually served with powdered sugar. From French.

Bobo, n., is a small injury or sore. From French.

Bogue, n., is a stream or waterway. It is from the Choctaw bog or bok, river. Also found in the other Gulf States.

Cher, n., is a term of endearment. Cajun.

Choupique, n., the bowfin or cypress trout. It is a Louisiana French borrowing from the Choctaw shupik or mudfish. The word is also spelled shoe-pick or shoe-peg.

Clothes locker, n., a closet or wardrobe.

Coast, n., a riverbank. Cf. French côte.

Coffee milk, n., is translation (calque) of café-au-lait.

Couillon, n. and adj., is a hick, rube, or stupid person, or an adjective meaning stupid, inept. It is from the French.

Coulee, n., a streambed, especially one that runs dry in summer. It is also used to mean a bayou in the middle of marshland. It is from the French.

Court bouillon, n., a highly seasoned fish stock. It often contains vegetables and wine. It is pronounced /cubie yon/. It is from the French court (condensed) + bouillon.

Cowbelly, n., is soft river mud. It is also used in a transferred sense as a type of work shoe, one suited for the work in mud.

Daube, n., is a stew, especially of beef or veal. It is from the French.

Dirty rice, n., a dish of rice mixed with other ingredients, such as shrimp, sausage, and chicken livers. The name comes from the brown color.

Dodo, n., a nap, a period of sleep. It is from French baby talk. The word is commonly found in the phrases go dodo or make dodo, meaning go to sleep, a translation of faire (un) dodo. Cf. make groceries.

Dos gris, n., an American scaup duck, Fuligula marila. The word is from the Louisiana French for gray back, from the bird’s coloration.

Étouffée, n., is a stew, usually with crawfish and vegetables. Cajun. It is from the French étouffér, to smother.

Go cup, n., a plastic cup used at a New Orleans bar so one can take the drink out onto the street.

Grenouille, n., a green frog or toad. It is from the French.

Gris-gris, n. & v., is magic, a charm or fetish, bad luck, or to cast a spell or charm. Creole. It is ultimately African in origin, although the exact etymological path is lost. It is also spelled grigri.

Gros-bec, n., is a night heron. It is from the French for thick beak.

Gumbo, n., okra. The word is often used to denote a thick soup or stew with okra, other vegetables, and meat. Gumbo filé is this dish when flavored with ground sassafras leaves. It is from Louisiana French and ultimately African in origin.

Hoodoo, n. & v., is a synonym for gris-gris. The word is West African in origin.

Jambalaya, n., is a spicy stew of rice and meat or shellfish. The word is Louisiana French and ultimately from the Provençal jambalaia.

Krewe, n., an organization that organizes parade participants or other festivities for Mardi Gras. The word is a deliberate alteration of crew.

Lagniappe, n., a gift or bonus with purchase. By extension it can also mean anything extra thrown in for good measure. It is pronounced /lan-yap/. (There are variations on pronunciation.) It is from Louisiana French and ultimately from the Spanish la ñapa.

Lost bread, n., French toast. The term is a translation (calque) of the French pain perdu.

Make groceries, v., to go food shopping. Make is a translation of the French faire. Cajun. Cf. dodo.

Marais, n., is a swamp. The word is often found in place names. It is from French.

Mudbug, n., a crawfish.

Muffuletta, n., a sandwich on a large, round bun; the bun used to make the sandwich. The word is a Sicilian dialectical word for a soft, spongy roll.

Neutral ground, n., is the grass median between a divided road or the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the road. The term is also found in southern Mississippi.

Oyster loaf, n., is a baked sandwich of oysters, cream, and other ingredients on a long roll.

Parish, n., is the Louisiana term for the administrative district known as a county in the rest of the United States.

Voodoo, n., is a form of religious witchcraft. The word is African, ultimately from the Dahomey vodu.

Yat, n., 1) a person, usually white and working class, who lives in the Irish Channel section of New Orleans, just upriver of the French Quarter; 2) the dialect spoken by these people. From the phrase “Where y’at?” The Yat dialect is strikingly similar to the New York dialect in pronunciation. This oddity is not explained, although the high proportion of Irish immigrants in both places may partially explain it.

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