The Cajun language, also known as Cajun French or Français Acadien, is uniquely associated with the Cajun peoples of southern Louisiana’s bayou country. The unique history of the Cajun people and the development of the Cajun language make for an intriguing background to the vibrant Cajun culture we know today.
Origin of the Word Cajun
The term “Cajun” can be used to refer either to the Cajun language or culture, or to the Cajun people, descendents of French colonists who originally lived in the region of Canada then known as Acadia, or Acadie in French. In fact, the term “Cajun” is actually an altered form of the word “Acadian.” Cajuns supposedly referred to themselves as “Cadiens” or “Cadjins” in French, a term that was adapted to “Cajun.” Today the term recalls the heritage and history of the modern Cajun people.
Another interesting fact concerning Cajun culture: The epic poem “Evangeline” by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow recounts the tragic tale of Acadian expulsion from Acadia and subsequent resettlement in the bayou country of southern Louisiana. Published in 1847, the poem contributed to a renewed sense of Acadian identity in both Canada and Louisiana.
Classification and Origins of the Cajun Language
Cajun is technically considered a dialect of the French language, although Cajun and Standard French are not always mutually intelligible. The French language is classified as a Romance language belonging to the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The Cajun French spoken in Louisiana is just one of many types of French, a truly global language. A wide variety of French dialects can be found around the world, from Africa to Haiti, Canada, Indochina and more.
The French language derived from Latin. During its development in present-day France, the language acquired a variety of influences, notably from Celtic and Germanic languages. The modern French language still shows evidence of both Germanic and Celtic elements, thanks to the influence of the Gauls (a Celtic people) and invading Germanic tribes such as the Visigoths.
Early Development of the French Language
In early medieval times, the language spoken in the area that is now France began to evolve and divide into two distinct languages, divided by the Loire River. The language of “d’oil” spoken north of the river became more prominent throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, gaining popularity throughout Europe. It became the language of the courts throughout parts of Italy and Germany, and the elite classes of these countries often hired tutors to teach their children the language.
After the Hundred Years’ War, a surge of French nationalism encouraged an acceptance and celebration of the language of the French court, which was subsequently turned to as the national linguistic standard. In 1539 the king of France, Francis I, established the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets, which declared the language spoken in Paris known as Francien the official language of the kingdom.
The Academie Francaise
Significant steps toward standardizing the French language were made in the 17th century with the foundation of the Academie Francaise, a literary society formed by the cardinal Richelieu. The society undertook the project of compiling a French language dictionary, the first edition of which was released in 1694.
The French language further solidified its status under the guidance of King Louis XIV of France, who undertook efforts to standardize the language and promote its status throughout France and Europe. The publication of the first dictionary, the printing press, and high literacy rates were essential to the language’s development. By the late 17th century, the French language had essentially evolved to the present form of French that we know today.
History of the Cajun People: From Acadia to Louisiana
The French colony of Acadia was established in 1604 and included the present-day province of Nova Scotia and its surrounding areas. Of course, French settlers brought their language with them to the new country. France, however, did not maintain control of the area, as its claim to this land was soon challenged by the British.
The British officially received permanent possession of the area with the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. In 1755, British fears regarding the loyalty of the French-descended Acadians led them to drive out all Acadian settlers who refused to swear allegiance to the crown. As a result, an estimated 4,000 Acadians migrated to the southern state of Louisiana, where they settled in the fertile lands of the bayou.
Early Development of the Cajun Language
When they migrated to the southern United States, the Acadians brought their French language with them. Additional groups of French-speaking settlers migrated to the Louisiana territory through the 19th century. The contact between various French-speaking dialects gradually evolved and merged into the unique dialect now known as Cajun French.
The Cajun People Today
There is some division between the Cajun people and other groups in Louisiana. This is in part due to discrimination against Cajuns and in part due to the fact that Cajun communities tend to be close-knit and secluded.
A number of people of Acadian descent in present-day Canada’s Maritime Provinces still identify specifically with their Acadian past. These people often refer to themselves as Acadians. Although they share the Cajun peoples’ Acadian heritage, they maintain a distinct ethnic group apart from the Cajuns.
Due to contact and marriage with a wide variety of people other than exiled Acadians, the modern Cajun people of present-day Louisiana have a mixed heritage including African, European and Native American elements. Although it has been centuries since they migrated to Louisiana, modern Cajun culture has managed to preserve a great deal of French-Canadian tradition and folk culture.
The Cajun people are well-known for their vibrant culture, as well as their unique language. Cajun music is notable for its mixture of French-Canadian elements (such as accordions) and African American elements, and is celebrated as one of the many distinct cultural aspects of the Cajun people.
Modern Cajun Language
Most Cajuns residing in Louisiana today are bilingual, speaking both Cajun and English. In fact, most members of the younger generations claim English as their first language, and there have been some fears regarding the preservation of the Cajun language. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana was formed in 1968 to help establish legal rights and to ensure the preservation of the Cajun French language.
Cajun Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Français Acadien, Acadian, Cajun, Cajan, Cadien, Louisiana Regional French
Language Family: Indo-European, Italic, Romance, Italo-Western, Western, Gallo-Iberian, Gallo-Romance, Gallo-Rhaetian, Oïl, French
Spoken by Approximately 1,000,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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