Dictionary.com’s United States of Diversity series
by Taneesh Khera
Music resounds from every direction. Drums, brass, and strings clash against the cacophony of song and dance. The crowd, as diverse as the Black, Native, and European people who’ve called the area home for centuries. Smells waft in with the sound: from street-side vendors, gumbo, jambalaya, and cajun and creole spices you can taste in the air. This is world-famous New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is just a sprinkling of the rich Louisiana Creole culture. Hungry for more? Read on to learn more about what a creole is and how it defines a certain population in Louisiana.
What makes a creole?
In a nutshell, a little blood, sweat, and tears makes a creole. But really, linguists describe a creole as a complex language, evolving from a pidgin. (The terms creole and pidgin, it is important to note, have been historically applied in various ways and their nature has long been debated among linguists.)
Think of a pidgin as a baby language. Two groups of people who speak different languages come together for business or labor. They don’t speak the same language, so they create one. They’re out there, trading and working, and to communicate, they don’t need anything fancy: just a few simple sentences, numbers, and other things that describe their surroundings or the immediate future.
So, a creole is created when people from these two different languages come together for more than just business … when they create a life together, a community. Neither knows the language of the other, but they have a pidgin language in common. Over time, the language naturally gets richer. It evolves so that they can share complex conversations with one another—about loves, fears, hopes, future plans, and so on. Once they have children, the children learn the creole language as their native tongue.
It’s not easy for a pidgin to survive and evolve into a creole. It takes strength to raise children in a second language, especially in one you helped create. So, a creole is a language of struggle and courage, hope and perseverance.
And as for the term creole, it derives from French, Spanish, and Portuguese forms ultimately from the Latin criar, “to bring up,” based on creāre, “to create.” The term is first recorded in English in the late 1600s.
Who are the Louisiana Creole?
The term Creole can refer to a person born in the West Indies or Spanish America but of European, usually Spanish, ancestry.
It can also refer to the Creole people of Louisiana who live in the parishes just west and northwest of Baton Rouge and, of course, in and around New Orleans. They have African, French, Spanish, and Native American lineage. Many self-identify as African American, while others as mixed race. Here’s a little history of the area:
- When the French colonized Louisiana, they began mixing with the African slaves.
- Then, the French sold Louisiana to Spain, adding Spanish and Asian peoples from the Philippines.
And so, the Louisiana Creole language was mainly created from the combination of French and African languages (with a little Spanish added in), enabling slaves to communicate with each other and to colonists.
It’s important to note, though, that not all people who identify as Louisiana Creole may speak the language that is also called Louisiana Creole.
What are some features of Louisiana Creole?
The distinct languages and cultures impacting Louisiana Creole give it a special sound. It’s not a direct dialect of French, like Cajun. Louisiana Creole is French-based language with many African influences and elements.
It’s a language that looks very interesting. It has something called reduplication, where a word gets repeated, usually three times, for emphasis. The concept is similar to how we put extra stress on a word or syllable for emphasis. Here’s an example of reduplication in Louisiana Creole:
Louisiana Creole: To bras li zhiska li vini zhon zhon zhon.
Literal translation: You mix it until it become yellow yellow yellow.
English translation: You mix it until it turns (very) yellow.
The demonstrative pronoun (this, that, these, those) comes after the noun in Louisiana Creole (“ball this,” “man that”). In English, it comes before the noun (“this ball,” “that man”). Below are a few examples.
Louisiana Creole: fwa-sa-la
Literal translation: time-this/that
English translation: this/that time
Louisiana Creole: Kòmon to lem gonbo-sa-la?
Literal translation: How you like gumbo-this
English translation: How do you like this gumbo?
Who still speaks Louisiana Creole?
Estimates say there are under 7,000–10,000 people who still speak Louisiana Creole. As is common with endangered languages, many Louisiana Creole speakers are older, preferring their native tongue and preserving their culture. Younger people very often adopt the dominant language. Most speakers of Louisiana Creole are, of course, in Louisiana, and most also speak English fluently.
But, English spoken in New Orleans (“Norlins”) has a unique flair of its own (one that resembles that of New Yorkers/New Yawkuhs, seemingly because both areas were port towns with large immigrant populations). For example, a New Orleans English accent is nonrhotic. This means many English speakers don’t pronounce the R when it ends a syllable or comes before a consonant.
What are the flavors of Louisiana Creole?
The language is interesting, but the center of Louisiana Creole culture is food. And, the traditional Creole gumbo is like a parade of flavors. Looking at the ingredients of gumbo gives us more understanding into all of the different cultures that make up Louisiana Creole.
The French roux base sets the stage for the entire dish. Then, the vegetables: like okra, celery, onion, bell pepper. French andouille sausage makes an appearance, and local seafood and meat like shrimp, crab, and chicken. For a kick, Spanish and Native American spices get thrown in. The filé powder is made of ground, Native American sassafras leaves. The paprika, a Mexican spice exported to Spain in the 1600s, is combined with black pepper, cayenne pepper, and salt.
Gumbo needs care and attention, constant stirring to mix its curated ingredients into one savory blend … and that’s just what the Creole people did to create and sustain their communities and language.
Taneesh Khera is a poet, writer based in Oakland, CA. She’s also a linguist trained in the US, Mexico, and Chile. Se habla español. See more of her work here: www.kheraphrase.ink.