In Louisiana, Desire for a French Renaissance

In the New York Times yesterday:

« French was introduced to Louisiana in the late 17th century with the first European settlers. It flourished, most famously, here in southwest Louisiana, which eventually became home to many French-speaking settlers, including the Acadians, or Cajuns, who were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the mid-18th century. Many other Louisianans of French descent, both black and white, refer to themselves as Creoles.

The demise of their language was hastened in the last century by mass media, urban prejudices against French-speaking rural people and a mandate in the 1921 Constitution that public schools teach only in English. Many older Cajuns remember being punished for using their vernacular in class.

The late 1960s, however, brought the rise of a Cajun pride movement and an embrace of French cultural roots that continues today, with a statewide French immersion education program that is the largest in the country, serving more than 4,000 students.

But few here believe that is enough to undo the damage. The immersion students are a small fraction of the state population, and two-thirds of the teachers recruited for the program are foreigners whose “book French” may not always square with the Louisiana variety, with its irregularities and Anglicisms. (A truck here is, more often than not, un truck.)

“My generation is partially at fault for this,” said Charlie Manuel, 73, a retired insurance agent who hosts the thrice-weekly “La Tasse” on Fridays.

But there is also a hope that efforts like the show, along with a small band of Francophone scholars, activists and Cajun musicians, might nourish the language until it somehow flourishes again.

Barry Jean Ancelet, a renowned folklorist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said French-speaking Louisianans might look to the example of Hebrew, a largely dormant language that was revived by 19th-century Zionists.

“Sure there’s every indication that this is dwindling at an alarming rate,” he said. “But there are also indications of remarkable activity and creativity.”

The route to linguistic renaissance may be unclear, but in Evangeline Parish, there is certainly a desire to find it. The parish does not have a French immersion program, and in December, the police jury, the equivalent of the county council, passed a resolution asking the school board to consider starting one. »

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