New Orleans’ Louisiana Creole French: no, we’re not talking about fusion food (though the gumbo, beignets, and jambalaya will come up in due time). We’re talking language.
Louisiana Creole French, not to be confused with Cajun French (another influential language in the development of Louisiana), refers to a language created by the descendants of African slaves in Louisiana – a sort of melding of French and West African languages.
Initially, the term Creole was used to refer to people of European descent who were born in colonial America, rather than France or Spain.
The term was later used to describe individuals of mixed heritage, with both African and European ancestry, who formed their own social class of free people of color and enjoyed many of the same rights as whites. It is they who are responsible for the creation of this language that became an indelible part of Louisiana culture.
In our quest to uncover the influence of foreign languages on the development of various communities throughout the US, we start with a look at the role Louisiana Creole French played in building one of the nation’s most vibrant cities.
Early New Orleans
One of the most notable sites where Louisiana Creole French took root, inextricably influencing the development of the local culture, is New Orleans. Already a melting pot of various immigrant cultures – French, Spanish, German, African and Irish, to name a few – Louisiana Creole French was only one of many languages spoken in early New Orleans.
French was especially prominent in early New Orleans, due to its longstanding presence in the region. Founded by the French-Mississippi Company on May 7, 1718, the city was named for the French Duke of Orleans and became one of the epicenters of the Atlantic slave trade. The presence of slaves (and French Creoles) was further augmented by the influx of Haitian refugees fleeing their country’s revolution in 1804.
Apart from a brief period of Spanish control (1763-1801), white French-speakers (the original Creoles) remained a majority of the city’s population until approximately 1830. It was even possible to see elderly Creoles who spoke no English at all as late as 1945.
Even with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which made the French colony part of the US, Louisiana Creoles resisted the push for assimilation and rejected the Americans’ attempt to instate English as the official language.
They also stood strong against American desires to replace Louisiana’s more fluid three-class system with the stricter American binary of black and white. This attempt to do away with the class of free “Creoles of color” was resisted by both white Creoles and those of color alike.
Despite the historical prominence of the French language in New Orleans, it was actually Louisiana Creole French that became an indelible part of New Orleans culture, moreso than any other language.
Perhaps this is because of its authentically native Louisiana origin, having localized the French spoken by colonial settlers and immigrants to include more regional slang and elements from the backgrounds of African slaves, as well as bits and pieces from Spanish and Native American languages.
The influence of Louisiana Creole French, and the culture that developed in conjunction with it, can still be seen today – in the food (jambalaya and gumbo), religion (Catholicism from European influence and voodoo from African/Caribbean), holidays (Mardi Gras – a Catholic holiday with an African/Caribbean twist) and music (jazz and zydeco) of New Orleans.
Louisiana Creole French Today
Though the number of actual Louisiana Creole French speakers has fallen markedly since colonial times (there were estimated to be around 70,000 in 1985), as a result of increased assimilation and Anglicization, some words have managed to survive and make their way into the everyday speech of locals.
It is also not entirely uncommon to find members of older generations who still speak at least some Louisiana Creole French. These individuals are generally found in more rural areas of Louisiana, however, where a higher degree of isolation and less exposure to English-speakers has allowed them to preserve their mother tongue.
As a result of internal migration over the past few centuries, speakers of Louisiana Creole French can now be found in other parts of the country as well. There are a handful of speakers in southeast Texas and Chicago, but California claims the most speakers of Louisiana Creole French outside of the Pelican State.
Despite the slight dispersion of this language group, the majority of speakers of Louisiana Creole French still remain concentrated in southern Louisiana, the language’s true home and birthplace.
Translation and Interpreting
As there are still a number of speakers of Louisiana Creole French, it might be a good idea for businesses or facilities located in southern Louisiana to provide translation and interpreting services.
By translating English signs and product information, companies will make local residents who speak Louisiana Creole French feel like valued customers and, as such, they may be more likely to patronize these establishments.
Local healthcare facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes, may also benefit from translation and interpreting services. When dealing with people’s health, it is essential that they are able to understand what is going on.
From signs directing visitors to the restrooms or cafeteria to intake forms asking for important medical information, translation of text in hospitals can help avoid confusion and even save lives.
Interpreting can also be a useful tool, especially in nursing homes, as elderly individuals are more likely to still speak Louisiana Creole French and may need help to understand treatment options and give consent.
Though it may not be the primary language of as many people as it once was, Louisiana Creole French is inextricably a part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans (and Louisiana in general). Similarly resilient to the city of New Orleans itself, the influence of Louisiana Creole French remains palpable in many aspects of daily life and will surely be felt for generations to come.