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Southeastern Geographer Vol. 30, No. 2, November 1990, pp. 107-120 THE LOUISIANA FRENCH LANGUAGE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Lawrence E. Estaville,Jr. Language is the essence of a culture. As such, it is the fundamental framework for the way people think and the primary vehicle for communicating ideas, customs, and skills. The most critical point in cultural assimilation, therefore, is when a group of people learns the language of another group. The millions of non-English-speaking European immigrants who came to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries soon realized that they had to learn English to achieve economic, social, and political success. These European immigrants thus conformed to the Anglo-dominated culture of the United States. (I) Yet two major exceptions to this assimilation model for European settlers stand out in our nation's history—French Louisiana and the Spanish Southwest. The French and Spanish did not migrate into a dominant English-speaking culture; instead, thousands of Anglos came to occupy and control the American homelands of these people. Indeed, the French and Spanish resisted Anglicization, particularly the use of English. (2) The Louisiana French faced forced assimilation in the 19th century, and the Hispanics of the Southwest continue to contest being melted into today's mainstream American culture. PURPOSE AND METHODOLOGY. The purpose of this study is to examine how successful the Louisiana French— Louisiana's French Creoles (descendants of 18th-century Louisiana settlers who came directly from France) and Cajuns (descendants of Acadians who settled in Louisiana at the end of their 18th-century diaspora)—were in maintaining the usage and purity of the French language in South Louisiana during the 19th century, a period of massive Anglo intrusion. Moreover, major events affected Louisiana during the century—the Louisiana Purchase , statehood, the Civil War, and Reconstruction—and new technologies swept the state—steamboats, railroads, telegraphs, agricultural mechanization, electricity, and telephones. (3) These tumultuous transDr . Estaville is Associate Professor of Geography at Clemson University in Clemson, SC 29634. 108Southeastern Geographer formations permeated the Louisiana French experience during the 19th century and dramatically changed their culture. Simultaneously, the French lost control of the political, economic, and educational institutions within the state, which much more profoundly affected the usage and purity of their language. These propositions, however, stand in stark contrast to the idea that the general American public as well as the academic community have typically held: the Louisiana French have completely assimilated a variety of ethnic groups, including the Anglo-Americans, while the Gallic culture of South Louisiana, especially its language, remained unchanged for more than one hundred years. Three excerpts underscore the literature that supports the notion of such an immutable Louisiana French culture. Harry Oster wrote in 1959 about the use and purity of the French language in the early decades of the 20th century: A generation ago, a French visitor to southwest Louisiana, the area along the Lafourche, Teche, and Vermilion bayous, could easily have imagined himself in a province (somewhat tropical) of France itself. He would have noticed that the people spoke French almost exclusively, a dialect much like that of the provinces. . . . (4) Marilyn J. Conwell and Alphonse Juilland focused on the necessity of being able to speak French in South Louisiana in 1963: It is more or less true that anyone who does not speak French and is not a Catholic remains a stranger in this area. (5) And in 1980 Marietta M. LeBreton emphasized the assimilation prowess of the 19th-century Cajuns: By and large the Acadian communities existed in isolation . . . outsiders were completely absorbed into the Cajun culture and community; they learned to speak French and adopted the local customs ... in the 20th century they [the Cajuns] have become partially Americanized. (6) Yet no study heretofore has attempted to gather hard data to verify such claims about the primacy of the French language in 19th-century South Louisiana. To find such information, I undertook 10-percent random samples of family heads recorded in the 1860 and 1900 population manuscript census schedules for Louisiana and parts ofthree neighboring states—Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama (Fig. 1). This statistical inquiry analyzed 46 variables for the 5,128 family heads...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1549-6929
Print ISSN
0038-366X
Pages
pp. 107-120
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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