Je me souviens
Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai..
I remember at a very young age, maybe two or three, learning four basic things: How to count in French, how to say Hello Grandma in French (Bonjour Grandmère!), the lyrics to “Frère Jacques” and the lyrics to “Alouette”.
By the time I was about 8, I understood several of the words that were spoken in my grandparents’ home, and also knew that there were several more words I would hear that I was never to repeat.
I never learned the Cajun dialect. I was actually never really fully taught. My mother never was, nor was my Uncle. My Aunt taught herself. In the late 90s, the last Cajun-French speaking part of ma famille died along with my grandparents. Not since, have I heard a genuine Cajun accent from a relative. The language has disappeared from my family... toujours.
Je te plumerai la tête
Je te plumerai la tête
Et la tête, et la tête
In 1921, Cajun-French was banned from Louisiana schools. Anyone caught speaking their native dialect was swiftly punished. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it was socially acceptable again to speak the Cajun dialect publicly. By that time, essentially two generations of full-blooded Cajuns had been born. My grandfather was born in 1917, my grandmother in 1920. My mother was born in 1946. It was too late for both of those generations. My grandparents did speak Cajun French at home, however, but never outside the home during their childhood for fear of scorn, ridicule and punishment. By the time my mother’s generation came to be, the desire to teach children the Cajun dialect had dissipated in order to protect their children.
Then, my generation came along in the 60s and 70s. I struggled to understand my great-grandmother’s somewhat broken English until she died when I was 20. Our conversations were very limited, as I recall and I never knew if she just couldn’t hear me, or didn’t understand my fast English as she would place her hand behind her ear and say “Eh?”. Conversations often started, “Ma chère, you got boyfrand?” “Well, there’s this one guy..” “Is he Franch?” “Non, Grandmère.” I didn’t bother explaining to her how low the Cajun population was in Southeastern Minnesota.
By the time I was 19, I had decided on my minor: French. I had several years of High School French under my belt and a year of college French behind me. And so, I decided to give it a go. I said something to Grandmère to the effect of it being nice out, or something like that. I don’t know if it was that she didn’t hear me, if it was because Parisian French in this instance was so far removed from Cajun French that she didn’t understand me or perhaps she expected English out of my mouth and thus, I confused her. But, just like Grandmère, she reached her hand up behind her ear and said “Eh?!”. I gave up trying to communicate with her in French at that point. I tried. It was valiant. But, I was best communicating in simple English words with her.
Grandmère died on June 9, 1995. She was 103. Four years later, my grandmother died. We played “La Grâce du Ciel” at her funeral, which is Cajun for “Amazing Grace”.
A recently-published article discussed the disappearing culture of my ancestors and how preservation of a once-unwritten language has become a priority in South Louisiana. Another article published over 20 years ago discusses the same thing. La langue a disparu!
La Grâce du Ciel est descendu
Me sauver de l’enfer
J’étais perdue, je suis retrouvée
But, just learning Parisian French isn’t going to réveiller le français once spoken by my ancestors. When I was thirteen, my grandparents and two of my cousins visited us in California. While at Disneyland, my grandmother tried desperately to help a French-speaking woman who couldn’t find the bathrooms. The language barrier was huge, much like we would experience if we attempted to effectively communicate with someone from 15th Century England. Words have evolved since and accents are different. She could barely understand the most basic words that carried over to the Cajun French dialect over the centuries. Thus, teaching “the good French,” as it’s called, is not bringing back a disappearing heritage. It’s only making it more “Franch“.
Comme pour ma famille, la plupart d’entre eux ont trouvé la mort. Ils me manquent toujours.
De tous les dangers de la vie,
La grâce est mon abri
C’est cette même grâce qui m’amènera
Aux portes du paradis.