Welcome to Dictionary.com’s United States of Diversity series
by Taneesh Khera
Here, we explore the minority languages of this country and the people who use them. To linguists, no dialect is better than another. They all have merit, since they’ve all emerged from cultural peculiarities unique to the region and its people. Join us in this series, for a trip around the country as we dig for linguistic gold!
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.
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, laboring; 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 this baby pidgin language in common. Over time, the language naturally gets richer. It evolves so that they can share complex conversations with one another, about philosophy, 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.
Who are the Creoles of Louisiana?
The Creole people of Louisiana 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. Most 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 they took from present-day Senegal and Gambia.
- Then, the French sold Louisiana to Spain, adding Spanish and Asian blood 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 and colonists to communicate.
What does Louisiana Creole sound like?
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 like a hybrid French-African language.
It’s a language that looks ve-ry 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 yellow.
The demonstrative noun (this, that, these) 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?
While Louisiana Creole people over 60 years old prefer to speak their native tongue, those under 30 prefer English. This split is natural for minority-language populations. The younger generation finds they need the dominant language to thrive, so they learn it, and over time prefer it. The older population either doesn’t learn the dominant language, or they want to preserve their native language and culture.
But, New Orleans (“Norlins”) spoken English 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 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 sassafrass 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.