Date: Mon, 13 Feb 1995 09:01:04 -0600


Subject: Cajun English Dialect

Hey y'all,

I had just told the linguistic anthropoogy folks that I did my diss on

Cajun English, and so Peter Patrick asked me to post a message to this list

describing what I'd done and how I defined Cajun English.

My diss was on the uses of Cajun English as an ethnic identifier, ethnic

boundary marker for self-identifying Cajuns, especially for those who live

their lives in English these days. I did a year and a half of field work

in Terrebonne Parish. For those of y'all who know the area, I lived south

of Houma along Bayou Terrebonne in Bourg, a few miles above Montegut. I

interviewed people who were natives of Montegut, Pointe-aux-Chenes and

(over on Bayou Petit Caillou) Chauvin. I collected and analyzed oral

histories as well as recording naturally-occurring conversation (whatever

that means). Also did the sociolinguistics thing with a matched-guise test

to look for attitudes toward Cajun English.

Nothing's published. I'll be happy to share with any who'd like more info.

One chapter of the diss was devoted to a quick linguistic analysis of

Cajun English (phonology, suprasegmentals and some syntax). I completely

avoided defining Cajun English by not calling

it that. I used the word that the people who live in that area use to

refer to their own speech. Down there, they call it "flat." And people who

have heavy accents talk "flat, flat, flat." In Terrebonne Parish, the term

is a regional AND ethnic boundary marker. For instance, you can refer to

the local Houma Indian speech as "flat," (depending on the speaker, of

course). Locals talk in general terms about how people in "south

Louisiana" (by which they mean South of New Orleans -- not the prairie

Cajuns) all talk "flat." People in Lafourche Parish as said to talk even

"flatter." Justin Wilson, many say, never talked "flat" in his life. (Talk

about a lightning rod for anger.) Several people told me that you aren't

a Cajun unless you "talk flat." The word "flat," marks different

boundaries at different times, depending on the setting, speakers, need, etc.

Carl Blyth (UT) once told me that people in Pointe Coupee (I think -- I'm

working from memory here and may have gotten the wrong parish) have the

expression, "parle plat." And Pat Mire (who did that great movie "Dance

with a Chicken") told me that growing up in Eunice he'd heard it a lot.

However, lots of prairie Cajuns have never heard the term.

Anyway, for the linguistic analysis I just got people to say, "OK, this is

flat, this isn't," etc. and then analyzed the differences between the

reports of what is and isn't flat.

There's no question in my mind, however, that when you talk about Cajun

English you *have* to deal with *regional* and *class* questions in

addition to ethnic identification. And the issues surrounding ethnic

identification are complicated as well. In Terrebonne Parish, anyway, the

label "Cajun" has as much to do with economic class, racial lines

(perceived), and recent memory as it does with who actually came over from

Nova Scotia. Or at least it does where I did my field work (among upper

working class, lower middle class folks).

Sorry for going on at such length, I just wasn't really sure what people

are interested in: questions of defining the dialect, pieces of the

phonology or suprasegmentals (which are crucial), or the surrounding

cultural milieu in which the dialect resides.

Feel free to add, question, debate, narrow the focus, or whatever.


Shana Walton

Mississippi Oral History Program

University of Southern Mississippi


(601) 266-5606