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Black Languages Matter : Louisiana Creole is Critically Endangered

Khalil Shahyd
Black Languages Matter : Louisiana Creole is Critically Endangered

Culture and history are reflected in many ways: Clothing, food and architecture for example are three common ways to differentiate one culture from another. However, one of the most important ways of understanding the culture and history of a people is through their language. Unfortunately, many cultures are now under threat and the list of endangered languages is growing day by day. In fact, over 40 percent of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing.

Louisiana Creole is one of the world’s distinct languages at critical risk of becoming extinct, unless more is done to ensure that it is preserved, passed on, and brought back to social use.

“With every language that dies we lose an enormous cultural heritage; the understanding of how humans relate to the world around us; scientific, medical and botanical knowledge; and most importantly, we lose the expression of communities’ humor, love and life. In short, we lose the testimony of centuries of life.”

A language becomes endangered when inter-generational transmission is disrupted or stops altogether so that the number of native speakers declines to such a low level that it hinders reproduction and social or formal use of the language. Because of this, Louisiana Creole is now listed by the United Nations, Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a critically endangered language.

The dynamic of Louisiana Creole

Louisiana Creole is a language based largely in French vocabulary with influences from Mande and Manlike languages common to the Senegambia region of West Africa in addition to local Indigenous languages. Many prominent features of its grammatical structure are drawn from African languages (Mande in particular) so that Louisiana Creole often places its definite articles (the) after the noun being described rather than before it.

It began as a pidgin language and was developed to facilitate communication between enslaved Africans and francophone land owners in the Louisiana colony. Once the language was passed on to children and a more formal grammatical structure developed it transitioned from being a simple “pidgin” of French to becoming its own distinct language.

Because of the association of Louisiana Creole with slavery it became stigmatized and imbued with negative connotations of inferiority. Often referred to as “francais neg” or “n***** French”, Louisiana Creole was driven to the margins as many free people of color who later began to redefine themselves as Creole preferred to speak “Colonial French” in hopes of attracting association to a higher society.

Once Louisiana passed onto the U.S. through the Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana Creole suffered further marginalization as English became the dominant language of commerce and education.

Louisiana Creole can also be heard frequently New Orleans Black "Mardi Gras" Indian Songs

Louisiana Creole Today

Today, Louisiana Creole is spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and those numbers are dwindling as fewer and fewer young people are taught and pass on the language. Speakers are largely concentrated in south and southwest Louisiana, but have migrated and extended far and wide.

Existing efforts in Louisiana to revitalize and preserve French language heritage have focused almost exclusively on European French and Cajun French language leaving Afro-Creoles and their language invisible to the story of the state’s cultural history.

State funded initiatives such as the Council for The Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), have focused on French immersion programs in public schools that includes the recruitment of teachers often from over seas to teach courses in French language and culture.

Yet little to no investment is made by the state towards the preservation of Louisiana Creole. There are plans within CODOFIL for the creation of a Creole Language Learning Center. However the purpose of this center will focus on “steering bilingual students to careers in the military” whereas the traditional programs focus on culture, tourism and expanded career opportunities for French and Cajun speakers.

There are now independent efforts to revitalize Louisiana Creole, however many of these have avoided addressing the ugly racial politics surrounding the term “Creole” and the colorism that it’s related to.

The term “Creole” in Louisiana today is most used to identify racially/ethnically mixed people many of whom shun identification with Black culture, Blackness and/or Africa and slavery.

Yet, the most persistent public use of Louisiana Creole language today can be heard in Zydeco music which like Louisiana Creole, remains heavily influenced by the African populations brought to Louisiana during the Trans-Atlantic trade.

Paul 'Lil Buck' Sinegal, fiddler, guitar player and early pioneer of Zydeco

Racism, discrimination and the death of Louisiana Creole

The legacy of racism and discrimination in America and Louisiana specifically has pushed Louisiana Creole to the brink of extinction. Early on the association of Louisiana Creole with slavery, created negative connotations for a people desperate to elevate their status in the eyes of a society dominated by European perspectives on race and value. The dominance of English later created further pressures to abandon the language as learning and commerce were primarily conducted in the new national language.

Today, while the state has invested resources in the preservation and promotion of European French and Cajun heritage in education, tourism and economic development, Louisiana’s Afro-Creole population has largely been neglected by those efforts even as much of our cultural products are appropriated and marketed by the state, restaurants and other businesses as “Cajun”.

And even as efforts to revitalize Louisiana Creole are growing, much of it is being led by those who define themselves and Creole in racially ambiguous ways to lessen the influence and relationship to Blackness and Africa. As such, Afro-Creole heritage and the role of racism in marginalizing the people and language are inadequately addressed through policy and programs.

Conflicts over discrimination and devaluation have plagued efforts to preserve Haitian Kreyol language in the United States as well. After a decades long fight, advocates in Boston finally won approval and opened the first bilingual Kreyol-English public school in that city with a large Haitian population.

Similar effort will be required to gain recognition and appreciation for Louisiana Creole to ensure its preservation and continuance. Losing an entire language would amount to the loss of a fundamental part of our cultural heritage. Most importantly, we lose the expression of an entire communities’ testimony of life, love, hardships and struggles. However, the fight to preserve Louisiana Creole should not fall on Afro-Creoles in Louisiana alone, the language belongs to the common heritage of all Black Americans and it's endangerment should be a call to action for people across the nation.

 

Post-scriptum: 
Zydeco music is today one of the most prominent places where Louisiana Creole can be heard