Date: Mon, 13 Feb 1995 09:01:04 -0600
From: Shana Walton swalton[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]WHALE.ST.USM.EDU
Subject: Cajun English Dialect
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.
Mississippi Oral History Program
University of Southern Mississippi
swalton[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]whale.st.usm.edu