Language: one of the main motivations that led me back to Southern Louisiana. The Cajun French dialect: the accent, slang words, jokes, sayings…these intricate and alive pieces… we are losing with my grandparents’ generation. Cajun French was banned in the schools when my grandparents were young, most of them did not teach it to their children, and the only way it is preserved is inside of the people that speak it. This language was passed down orally, for generations. Meeting all four of my great grandparents that could not speak english has shown me that a language can be lost in a lifetime. It happens fast. Southern Louisiana is simply one, of the many places around the world, on the cusp of experiencing this loss. As I’ve been talking and interviewing older folks, I’m realizing that most of them have something in common: they wish they had taught their children to speak Cajun French. And all of them take personal responsibility. Listening to their wishes, I wish the same…that the language had been passed down to my generation. But I also want to honor that the handing down of the Cajun dialect is rooted in much more than the weight of one’s own personal accountability. English was being institutionalized and ideals behind Americanization were hitting this country full-force in the 1930’s. School yards became quiet because children were punished for speaking the only language they knew how to speak. Many of our grandparents supported the English language to support the future of their children, without question. The ears of the present were much louder than the eyes of the future.
My mother could never communicate with her grandparents, my great grandparents. I listen to my grandparents cutting up with their friends and wish I could understand. The language of my elders is leaving. The Cajun dialect is on it’s last leg. When talking with my Uncle Nelton the other day, I asked him why he thinks the language is so important to our culture. He said with tears building, “It’s how we lived, it’s how we talked with our momma and daddy, it’s how we remember them…and we don’t want to let that die.” Witnessing the passing of this language generates some heartbreak. I do not know how to speak it. And I probably never will.
Though, I am beginning to see that much of the language is being passed down in the form of music. The Cajun music culture is thriving in parts of Louisiana and brings hope for language preservation. The other night when my relatives were gathered in the living room, my aunt sang a song on the guitar. She, along with 3 other people in the room, began to shed tears. Afterwards, I asked if she would teach me that song. She could not write it down, because they were never taught how to write their language. So she looked at the lyrics in english and translated it by saying the words in Cajun French. As she said each word, I wrote down the syllables as I heard them. Forty five minutes later, I had a mess of syllables that I understood how to read. I played the banjo and she played the guitar. We sang the song together.
Sometimes when I sing Cajun songs, my emotions becomes electrified. It comes from something deep. My minds starts floating to the love I have for my grandparents, the roots that I have. I think about the way my family spoke a long time ago, about the words they used in a time when life was hard but simple. I think about their terms of endearment and how connected I am to these pieces of my culture, even though I have largely lived outside of it for my life. Hearing the words, rhythms and melodies gives me some sense of place. For someone who has moved multiple times, this sense of place through culture offers some kind of definition of home that is deeply rooted. I feel the beauty in it, but I am also beginning to feel the loss. Perhaps playing music offers me some kind of hope. Like I’m doing my part. It gives my soul a place to be and feel this connection. I am honored to have this place to go…this place to celebrate and act on my personal responsibility. It is my choice to carry on in the ways I know how, for the people that are a part of me. And I believe that caring is a very real place to begin.