from sea to shining sea

American Varieties

Cajun English

Stirring the Linguistic Gumbo
Several varieties of French, Canary Island Spanish, German and a dash of English flavor Louisiana’s colorful Cajun English dialect. Megan Melancon serves it up. (The research cited in this essay was first published in 2001.)

The ingredients in the gumbo that is southern Louisiana’s linguistic heritage include several varieties of French (17th century, Cajun, and Creole), Canary Island Spanish, German, and, the most recent addition to the dish, English. All of these ingredients have flavored the speech of French Louisiana, yielding a unique dialect called Cajun English.

The dialect is spoken mainly in southern Louisiana, although emigrations to southern Texas and southern Mississippi have resulted in pockets of Cajuns living in those areas. The Cajuns have been referred to as a “linguistic curiosity,” and, in fact, their versions of English and French differ from American English and the French spoken in France. So, who are the Cajuns, and where they come from?

Cajuns are descendants of French settlers who moved into modern day Nova Scotia

History of the Cajuns

Cajuns are descendants of French settlers who moved into the area of Canada known as Acadia (modern day Nova Scotia) in the early 1600s. For many years, the territory was ceded back and forth between France and England as the spoils of war, and the settlers were left virtually undisturbed. In 1713, however, the treaty of Utrecht permanently sealed the fate of the small colony — it became a permanent possession of the British.

The Acadians were allowed to live in peace for a period of time, but because of their friendship with the Native Americans living in the area, and also because of an influx of British settlers, the British crown decreed that all persons of French ancestry must pledge allegiance to the British government. Beginning in 1755, those who refused to do so were deported and scattered across various coastlines in the American colonies in what their descendants still refer to as le grand derangement.

There are pockets of French culture and language surviving in diverse areas of the United States as a result of this forced emigration, including Maine, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. Some deportees also ended up in the then-French-ruled Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti, while others went back to Europe.

parking sign in mamou, la

The Acadians (shortened by English speakers to ’Cadians and then to Cajuns) were reviled and feared by their English-speaking Protestant neighbors in the American colonies, so they sought out isolated communities where they could practice their religion and teach their native language to their children. This isolation led, to some degree, to a preservation of French as it was spoken in the mid-1700s. In fact, some of the lexical items in Cajun French today are essentially unchanged from the French of that era, i.e. le maringouin (mosquito) (modern Friench le moustique).

The English that the Cajuns acquired for trading and economic purposes has been strongly influenced by their native French. The dialect has also been affected by the assimilation of the Cajun culture by various other ethnic groups living in the region: Native Americans tribes, German and Irish immigrants, African and Caribbean slaves, and the Spanish-speaking Islenos from the Canary Islands. More recently, forced schooling in English pursuant to the 1921 Louisiana constitution (which established English as the official language of the state), and the intrusion of mass media into even the most isolated bayou communities, has led to fewer and fewer people speaking French, with a consequent rise in the use of English. Today’s reality is that English is just as much a part of the culture as French, and English is rapidly overtaking many of the sociocultural parts of the Cajun heritage.

Characteristics of Cajun English

Although there are many dialectal oddities in Cajun English, five features strike the listener right away: vowel pronunciation, stress changes, the lack of the /th/ phonemes, non-aspiration of /p/ , /t/, and /k/, and lexical differences. The use of these features has resulted in no southern drawl at all in Cajun English. Cajuns talk extremely fast, their vowels are clipped, and French terms abound in their speech. These variations have been studied by a few linguists, more folklorists, and, in a casual way, many tourists.

The vocal differences of Cajun English are both qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative differences (the difference between the standard form of an English vowel versus a Cajun English vowel) are easily identifiable. Quantitative differences means that these changes are across-the-board and non-random in the speech of most Cajuns. Some examples? Diphthongs (or dual-vowel sounds) change to monophthongs (single vowels) in words such as “high.” Standard American English uses a diphthong - /hai/ - while Cajun English speakers use a single shortened - /ha/. The word “tape,” pronounced in English as /teyp/, is /tep/ in the mouth of Cajuns. In addition, many Cajun English speakers use the tense version of English vowels, making words like “hill” and “heel” homophones, or words with different written forms which have the same pronunciation—/hil/.

The patterns of French are still imprinted on the dialect

Intonation and stress are so striking in Cajun English that entire joke repertoires have been based on them. The French spoken by the older Cajuns was passed on to their descendants, who found it necessary to speak English for socioeconomic reasons, and the syllable final/phrase final stress of French persists to this day in the speech of Cajuns. Bilingual stress patterns often exhibit a form of mutual borrowing, and even though many Cajuns do not speak French at the present time, or speak it very poorly, the patterns of French are still imprinted on the dialect. As has been found in French Canada, English-like stress patterns are invading the French of the Cajuns, while the syllable-final stress pattern of the French has seeped into the English of the former Canadians. This leads to words such as “Marksville,” normally pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, being pronounced with stress on the second syllable (with a shortened and raised final vowel sound).

Voiceless and voiced /th/ replacements occur frequently in the speech of non-standard speakers, and the Cajuns are no exception. In fact, the replacement of the /th/ sounds with a /t/ or a /d/ sound is another source of the numerous jokes and imitations of Cajun speech made by others (and sometimes by Cajuns themselves, as in the “Cajun Night Before Christmas” recording made by Jules D’Hemecourt). Although many southern English and African American English speakers use an /f/ or a /v/ in place of the /th/ phonemes, both Creole and Cajun English speakers use the voiceless and voiced alveolar stops /t/ and /d/. Many bilingual French-Canadians exhibit this same linguistic behavior with regard to the /th/ phonemes, while standard French speakers tend to use an /s/ or a /z/ in pace of a “th” sound.

In Cajun English, words like “pat” sound much like the word “bat”

Standard English speakers normally aspirate (exhale a breath or air) when pronouncing the stop consonants /p/ , /t// and /k/ in stressed, syllable initial position. Cajun English speakers do not, yielding words like “pat” sounding much like the word “bat,” with a shortened vowel sound. The source of this is probably the French language. French speakers do not aspirate the voiceless stops. The mystery is why the Cajun English speakers in Louisiana, many of whom do not speak French, and who are more than 300 years removed from contact with French speakers, still retain this aberration in their speech.

Lexical differences are perhaps the most apparent to the causal observer “Boudin,” “lagniappe,” making groceries,” and “get down” (out of a vehicle) are all unacceptable to modern day spell-checkers, yet are quite normal in southern Louisiana (meaning a “rice and sausage mixture wrapped in an intestinal sack,” a “little something extra,” “going grocery shopping,” and “get out of”). Some (like boudin and lagniappe) are borrowings from French, others are calques, or direct translations from French (i.e. making groceries, from the French faire les courses and get down out of the car/truck/bus from French descendre). In addition, various areas of southern Louisiana have vocabulary items and pronunciations which are specific to the community, such as “zink” for “sink” in the New Orleans area. Also apparent from the French influence is the use of definite and indefinite articles. One has a coffee during a visit (and, given the strength of the coffee, one is grateful not to have “some!”). French endearments (“cher,” a short form of “cherie”, and pronounced “sha”), curse words, and conjunctions are often sprinkled into conversations (mais I don’t know, me.)

Current state of the language

Despite being subjected to abuse and stigmatization for many years, Cajun English speakers abound. Why would this be? Why would a dialect which was considered a mark of ignorance until very recently be heard on the lips of Cajuns young and old? The explanation most applicable to Cajun English is that the language is seen as a marker of being an insider to the community. This is seen most clearly when the French language ability of Cajuns is assessed: that language is dying, and is now only used among the older folks in the community. However, Cajun English use has been documented among even the youngest Cajun descendants, a fact that is easy to verify simply by going to any café in any small town in south Louisiana. To be a Cajun these days, the necessary and sufficient condition seems to be that you must speak Cajun English.

inside fred’s lounge, mamou, la

In many communities, a culture survives long after the language associated with it dies. In the case of the Cajuns, the differences from the surrounding Anglophone community are quite marked, making it easier to resist the encroachment of English culture. The retention of the unique music, food, and religion of the Cajuns has been aided by a history of endogamous marriages, geographical isolation, and stigmatization by the Anglophone community. Despite the fact that these things have changed tremendously in the past 40 years, Cajun people young and old still retain a distinctive flavor in their speech. So, the culture may survive. As long as Cajun English is used as a dividing line between the Anglophones and the long-exiled French Canadians, Cajun English will continue to proliferate.

Dr. Megan E. Melancon is a Cajun and a linguist.  Her research has centered on Cajun and Creole French and English in southern Louisiana.  Georgia College and State University should offer her some opportunities to explore dialects and language variations.

Some More Cajun Phrases and Resources

alors pas: of course not

cahbin: bathroom

co faire?: Why?

dit mon la verite!: Tell me the truth!

en colaire: to be angry

fais do-do: go to sleep

he’s got the gumbo: his pants are too big in the seat

hot, hot: very hot

magazin: store

make a bill: buy groceries

mo chagren: I’m sorry

my eye! (or my foot!): no way!

slow the TV: turn down the volume

speed up the TV: turn up the volume

sussette: pacifier

une piastre: a dollar

Louisiana: Just the Facts

Abbreviation: LA

Admitted to the Union: April 30, 1812 (18th state)

Capitol: Baton Rouge

Population: 4,315,000 (1994 Census Bureau estimate)

Climate: Subtropical

Flag: A pelican feeding its young against a field of blue

Federal Delegation: Two U.S. Senators Seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives Nine Electoral votes

Government: State Constitution of 1974 provides for 3 branches of government: Executive, Judicial, Legislative. The Executive Branch is headed by the governor who is elected for a four year term. The Judicial branch is headed by the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Legislative branch consists of 39 State Senators and 105 State Representatives. All are elected for four year terms.

Motto: Union, Justice, Confidence

Nickname: Pelican State

Political Subdivisions: 64 parishes (analogous to counties in other states)

State Bird: Eastern Brown Pelican

State Dog: Catahoula Leopard Dog

State Flower: Magnolia

State Insect: Honey Bee

State Tree: Cypress

State Seal: A pelican and her nest, surrounded by the state motto “Union, Justice, Confidence” and the words “State of Louisiana”.

State Songs: Give Me Louisiana, You Are My Sunshine
 Reprinted courtesy: Language Magazine

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Action Cadienne Action Cadienne was formed in April, 1996 as a non-profit volunteer association dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the French language and the Cadien (Cajun) culture of Louisiana.
  • Kreyol Lwiziyen: The Language of French Louisiana Resources and links on the creole of Louisiana.
  • Dubois and Horvath, “From Accent to Marker in Cajun English: A Study of Dialect Formation in Progress,” English World-Wide 19:2: (1998)161-188.
  • Dubois and Melancon, “Cajun is Dead—Long Live Cajun: Shifting From a Linguistic to a Cultural Community,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 1:1 (1997).
  • Father Jules O. Daigle, A Dictionary of the Cajun Language (1984).
Megan E. Melancon is a Cajun and a linguist. Her research has centered on Cajun, Creole French and English in southern Louisiana , and more recently, on Georgia dialects. She is currently Assistant Professor of English, Speech, and Journalism at Georgia College & State University.
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