The Créole Language of Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana.
Brian J. Costello is an 11th generation Créole of Pointe Coupée Parish. He is historian of the Pointe Coupée Parish Library Historic Materials Collection, the sole author of 18 books and co-author of four books on Louisiana history, culture, genealogy and linguistics. He is a native speaker of Pointe Coupée Créole.
Located near the apex of Louisiana’s “French Triangle” and bordered by the Mississippi, Atchafalaya and Red Rivers is the “Creole Mesopotamia” of Pointe Coupée Parish. One of the oldest settlements in the Mississippi Valley, Pointe Coupée has a history of continuous settlement since 1720, having been colonised by mainland French, Quebecois and Africans of various nations. These peoples, joined in the 19th century by Anglo-Saxons and Italians, formed a wonderful Creole culture, of which its architecture, cuisine, folkways and language attracted the attention from early travel writers, journalists and linguists. Many vestiges of that culture remain, in some of the finest examples of Creole building forms, the preparation of food and drink, the merriment of Louisiana’s oldest Mardi Gras celebration outside New Orleans and in the continued residency of its founding families, some 11 to 13 generations after the founding of the community.
In the second decade of the 21st century, however, one of the endangered features of the cultural treasure of Pointe Coupée Parish is its fascinating Creole dialect. Well into the mid-20th century there were many residents of the parish, particularly in and around the parish seat of New Roads and on both banks of False River, who knew not a word of English and conversed solely in the Creole tongue of their ancestors.
The effects of Americanisation may have been slow in manifestation, but rapidly increased in the developing years following World War II. Twenty years before this writing, it was estimated that fewer than 1,000 residents of the parish population of 24,000 were fluent Créole speakers, while another 2,000 to 3,000 had some knowledge of the dialect. These numbers have diminished greatly since however, owing to the predominance of English in everyday affairs and the fact that Creole speakers have predominantly been older persons.
Creole in Louisiana
Creole can be simply described as a language combining elements of French, African, Spanish and Native American languages, with greater or lesser proximity to Standard French. As Louisiana’s earliest settlers came from various provinces of France, plus other areas of the New World, and the Africans imported into the colony to form the work force were from different areas of Africa, it is obvious that a number of languages were spoken in Louisiana in the 18th century. In order for persons to communicate with others outside of their own socio-economic and ethnic circles, one language was needed that was comprehensible to all. Thus arose Louisiana Creole, which, in brief, combines an often archaic French lexicon with an African sentence structure. Louisiana Creole is not a single, uniform language, however, as several varieties exist, some more acrolectal (closer to Standard French), others more basilectal (further from Standard French) owing to specific communities’ and families’ socio-economic histories.
In 21st century Louisiana, Creole speakers may be found in several areas, including the Cote des Allemands (German Coast) parishes along the Mississippi River, particularly in the Vacherie and Edgard areas; the Lacombe community near the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain; the Bayou Teche communities of St. Martinville, Parks, Breaux Bridge and Cecilia; and the False River and adjacent areas of Pointe Coupée Parish. The Dictionary of Louisiana Créole (Valdman et al) estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 persons, mainly African Americans (and, by extension, persons of mixed descent), spoke the language in 1998.
Of the four primary areas, Pointe Coupée is home to a particularly basilectal form or, rather, forms of Creole owing to a variety of factors, including: the preponderant majority of African American and mixed ancestry population during most of the parish’s history; the fact that the parish was not an area of Acadian settlement, which would have undoubtedly resulted in the population speaking a more standard form of French; and, the parish’s history of widespread illiteracy, in which many families continued to speak in Creole rather than learn English well into the 20th century.
Characteristics of Pointe Coupée Creole
Within Pointe Coupée itself, sub-variations of Creole exist, with geography and socio-economic history being determining factors. In general, African-Americans and persons of all ethnicities on the Island, or inner bend, of False River tend to speak in a more basilectal form of Creole, while white speakers and residents of all ethnicities in the town of New Roads and rural area along the western or outer bend of False River speak in a more acrolectal manner.
The more basilectal sub-variety of Pointe Coupée Créole tends to feature post-nominal identifiers (ex: chaise la instead of la chaise, for “the chair}; pronunciation variations such as rendering the “u” vowel as “i” (ex: plis instead of plus, for the word “more”), “é” for “eux” (ex: dé, instead of deux, for “two”) and “in” instead of “ais” (ex: connin instead of connais, for “know”); and complete variations of words, such as yeink instead of juste, for “just.”
Virtually all speakers of Pointe Coupée Creole, however, use the same pronouns: mo (for je or “I”); no (for nous or “we”); to (for tu or “you” familiar and singular); vo (for vous or “you” plural and formal singular ); li (a single word for il and elle, whether animate or inanimate, for “he,” “she” or “it”); and yé (for ils or elles, whether animate or inanimate, for “they”). Other common features are archaic verb forms, such as the rendition of “have” as gin, derived from gaignier (to win), as opposed to the more standard French avez; and examples of metathesis, or transposed consonants, as in the pronunciation of poltrait instead of portrait for “picture” and plarine instead of praline for “pecan candy.”
Example of turn of the century Pointe Coupée Creole humor
The old adage “It’s never as funny when it’s translated” certainly applies to the following poem, “Qui fau fait avec in Fléve (What can you do with a River)?” which appeared in the June 17, 1893 issue of the PointeCoupée Banner. The piece is signed “A.D.” but this alone does not provide definite identity of the author. It is noteworthy that that issue was the first to be published by new owners Albin Provosty and J.O. Delage. As oral history and family tradition remembers Provosty as a great raconteur in the local Creole dialect, and the author of this poem refers to personal recollection of changes in the river – as Provosty would have had – it is likely that he was the author.
Presented in a form of phonetic transcription which most readers of standard French as well as speakers of Creole will find intelligible, prime examples of Pointe Coupée Creole idiosyncrasies herein include: post-nominal identifiers (ex: temps la instead of temps le, for “the time); pronunciation variations such as rendering the “u” vowel as “i” (ex: Labati instead of Labatut, for that surname); and the employment of loan-words from English (ex: dose, for dose of medicine).
Ça fé, tchombo ton chaise la, et enjoy ‘ti poeme-la:
Acceptez, messieurs et dames, s’il vous plait, ces pauvres rimes. Pardonnez au language dans lequel je m’exprime. Le but, en encrivant, au quel j’aspire, est de vous amuser et de vous faire rire. Je de pretends pas gravir au sommet de Parnase; trop fail le pour parvenir, iI faudrait que je me trainsasse. Je me plais seulement a placer sous vos yeux ce language qui jadis a servi nos aïeux.
Mr. Léditeur, qui fau fait avec in fléve
Qui, d’anné en anné, pa oulé behave?
Ça mo oulé di ouzotte cé pas dé bétise.
Temps la rendi pou d’autre entreprise,
Si ouzotte oulé li resté dan so chemise,
Q’uanta moin, ça ma semme bien ceci:
Cé tout bonnement in bête qui pa fini groci.
Mo tendé vié moune di, avan yé té vié
Yé té conin traverse li avec in dépié;
Mo rapel moméme, quan mo té piti,
Labas dévant Michié Labati,
Lalvé té pas pli ho qué do in torti.
Navé dotte place ou cété si platte,
Sa té semblé sayon pou planté patate.
Aster, bétail la conin gonflé si ho
Qué nou bo sayé, nou pa fouti chombo
In pareil animal dan so la po.
Enan in docteur qui di li gain la congestion;
Mo pensée ça oulé di in mauvais condition.
Si li te donne li in dose dan so Refrigérant,
Pététe cé cé réici glacé so courant,
Dé maniere qué li cé pas débordé en passant;
Mo pa cré ça cé pren plice quin dimi jog
Pou donne li in dose avec in si bon drog.
Uncle Sam li, li couri bouché so narine
Dé maniere pou laissé rentré la marine.
Dan la ville qué yé pelé Niorline.
Qui qualité bête qui pa et gonflé,
Si yé bouché son nez pou péene li souflé?
Yé bo entassé di sab dan so lé flan,
La gonflé so dos, ça va foute le can.
Cé temps pou moune ci qué yé pa capab
Arrété dolo jis avec dissab.
Avec ça fo pas blié Compere Cribiche,
Qui toujou préte joué non quec niche.
Enan plain qui apé pélé pou outlet;
Mo faché di ça, mais ça parait bin bette.
Ca semble listoire Compere Griboulle,
Qui soté dans dolo pou peché qué li moulle.
Cila yé qui resté on la ter qui ho
Mo pense pa que yé va gagné dolo,
Mais nouzotte qui resté ici dan in trou,
Laché ça ou nouzotte, il faudré tet fou.