- Speaking French in Louisiana, 1720–1955: Linguistic Practices of the Catholic Church by Sylvie Dubois, Emilie Gagnet Leumas, and Malcolm Richardson
Speaking French in Louisiana, 1720–1955: Linguistic Practices of the Catholic Church is a sociolinguistic and historical account of the use of the French language in the Catholic Church in south Louisiana from the 1720s to [End Page 664] the 1950s, when the last Catholic parish to keep its records in French switched to English. Perhaps providentially, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was a catalyst for the book, as the storm occasioned the transfer of archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to Baton Rouge, thus facilitating the authors' access to the source materials.
In the eighteenth century, French was the language and ethnicity of a majority of Catholic people in Louisiana. But from 1803 onward the linguistic trend moved relentlessly away from French in all but the most private aspects of Louisiana life. The church leadership realized that if they did not provide an English-speaking clergy, Protestant denominations might lure Anglophone Catholics into their pews. Indeed, the Irish rapidly became one of the largest Catholic communities in the state, especially in New Orleans. Irish immigrants founded St. Patrick's Church on Camp Street in 1833, more than a decade before the Great Famine of the 1840s that spurred waves of immigration to the United States. The Irish presence resulted in bilingual and eventually in English-speaking churches. In general, large urban parishes turned to English earlier than did small rural parishes. But St. Louis Cathedral, in the heart of New Orleans, remained largely Francophone until 1910.
From the book's data-driven analyses, the reader comes away with a clearer understanding of who spoke and wrote French, in what the authors call "a community of practice" spanning two hundred years (p. 13). It strongly appears that the Catholic Church was a factor in keeping French alive and in use in Louisiana. Even though it is not a major focus of the book, the authors note church initiatives in education. In New Orleans, the Ursulines led in education. In the small community of Grand Coteau near Lafayette, the Academy of the Sacred Heart has been teaching the French language since 1821.
To the authors' credit, the book does not claim to answer or to pitch macro-sociolinguistic questions and hypotheses about French in Louisiana. Where and when did the shift from French to English definitively happen? What are lexical, grammatical, and phonological features of French and Creole French in Louisiana? Who in the Catholic community was able to read, write, and speak French? The authors respond to the switch to English in a mood of objective acceptance. The prescient last sentence of Speaking French in Louisiana suggests that future studies on language and the Catholic Church in Louisiana will involve Hispanic people and the Spanish language.
Although the use of the French language in Louisiana has been studied extensively, this book is the first to look specifically and in depth at the Catholic Church's role. It is thus a pioneering study in the literal sense of the term and a worthy effort that may prepare the way for more scholarly work regarding the French language.