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American Speech 76.4 (2001) 424-427

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More than Just a Dictionary

Dictionary of Louisiana Creole. Edited by Albert Valdman, Thomas A. Klinger, Margaret M. Marshall, and Kevin J. Rottet. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Pp. 656.

According to the authors, Louisiana Creole (LC) is spoken primarily by African Louisianans who are descendants of slaves. It is not a variety of French like the Cajun and Colonial French dialects which are spoken in the same area, mostly by whites, but is rather a separate language related to French through its pidgin and creole stages. This dictionary is timely in that there are "scarcely any monolingual" speakers (1) left among the
20-30,000 speakers in the parishes just north and west of New Orleans to Baton Rouge and southwest of the former to the Texas border. "LC is undergoing severe loss" due to its low prestige and the lack of outside support for its maintenance and revitalization, unlike Cajun French (3). LC today exits "mainly as a symbol of identity for a community that has shifted to English" (18). The survivors' speech is heavily influenced by Cajun French and English, but Colonial French is hardly spoken today, so it is not a factor.

Cajun French as opposed to LC is spoken primarily by whites, some of whom are descendants of the Acadian refugees from Canada who settled in the area in 1760-80. Cajun French enjoys more prestige among LC speakers, so they tend to "move up" to Cajun "when speaking to strangers" (2), although today "most speakers of LC are bilinguals with dominant skills in English" (4), not Cajun. Furthermore, there is such "great similarity" between these two varieties that it is sometimes "difficult to unambiguously assign a speaker" to LC or Cajun (24). The editors do not mention the processes of decreolization of LC in the direction of Cajun, but this seems to be what has happened.

The close relationship between a French creole and a dialect of French (Cajun) is not typical. As the editors explain, Colonial Louisiana maintained [End Page 424] about equal numbers of whites and slaves. Plantations with 40-50 slaves predominated in Louisiana, while other colonies such as Saint-Domingue had ratios as high as 15 slaves to each white, which made it impossible for many slaves to hear French, allowing their creole to drift further away from French than LC did. In spite of the evidence suggesting that in the beginning years of the colonization of Louisiana, Bambara--one of the main languages in the area from which most of their slaves were taken--may have been the lingua franca for the slaves, the African influence on LC "manifests itself . . . more broadly in speech rhythm and intonation, in ways of using language, such as extensive resorting to proverbs and verbal play" (16). This and other fascinating information is included in the 15-page "Observations on Louisiana Creole," with subsections on pronunciation and orthography, morphology, syntax, and, finally, the origins of LC.

Since the dictionary covers not only currently spoken vocabulary but also large numbers of words from texts, word lists, and earlier language studies back to 1850, it was not always possible for the editors to assign a pronunciation to words written "with various adaptations to the conventional French spelling" (5). LC has never had an official spelling, unlike Haitian Creole. For words still spoken or transcribed earlier, the pronunciation of the headword of an entry is given in the "transcription system used widely to represent the French-based creoles of the Caribbean, the pan-Creole system. Whenever possible, this system used conventions of the official French spelling, but in a systematic manner" (5), with one spelling for each phoneme. The editors give the IPA equivalent for each symbol between phonemic slashes, which leaves one to wonder just what the narrow phonetic range of symbols like /e'/, /a'/, and /O/ is. The former higher mid vowel is quite removed from the typical pronunciation of standard French /E'/, which is closer to [รก'] than to [E'] and far from [e']. Likewise, the pronunciation of standard French /O/ is...


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pp. 424-427
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