Say What? Klingler Explores Louisiana French

November 4, 2003

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Tom Klingler first stepped foot--and brought his ear for language--into Louisiana a decade ago, moving here to mine Creole linguistic treasures.

klinglerThe fruits of his labors with tape recorder in hand are the Dictionary of Louisiana Creole (1998), of which he is a co-author, and If I Could Turn My Tongue Like That: The Creole Language of Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana (2003), his recently published solo work. Most of his research for these books centered on New Roads, La.

But Klingler, an associate professor of French who has been at Tulane since 1992, has not been content to keep his focus narrowly on one community.

He is branching out and has launched a major study of French among various ethnic groups--whites, blacks, Creoles of color, African Americans and Native Americans--throughout Louisiana.

His ambitious project has received funding this fall with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. These fellowships will allow Klingler to devote two years to collecting, transcribing and analyzing the language of more than 150 people who speak some variety of French in about a dozen Louisiana parishes.

Louisiana Creole, according to Klingler, is distinct linguistically from Cajun French. Some would even claim that it should not be considered French. Louisiana Creole arose as a "contact" language. It developed in Louisiana after 1699 when the first settlers arrived and black slaves, who spoke African languages, came in contact with French speakers.

It is spoken by whites, African Americans and Creoles of color--people of mixed African and European heritage, usually French, Spanish or sometimes German. Cajun French, on the other hand, is a French dialect, says Klingler. It has been transmitted from one French-speaking generation to the next.

"A main point of my new project," says Klingler, "is to eschew the traditional practice of looking at one language variety--Cajun or Creole--or one ethnic group, but to look at the whole picture."

Klingler says he'll try to tease out why the types of French that are spoken in different Louisiana communities are spoken in particular places, linking what he finds to historical and social developments in the area. Klingler has already found that French-speaking black people and Creoles of color in towns such as Opelousas and Ville Platte refer to themselves and the language they use as Creole.

But, in reality, Klingler says, "What they speak is virtually identical to what their white Cajun neighbors speak. Whites identify themselves as Cajun and say they speak Cajun. Creoles of color say, 'Well, I'm Creole, so I speak Creole.'"

As Klingler ventures further into Louisiana's complex mix of language use, language labels and ethnic labels--where the population of French speakers of all varieties is on the decline--he's treading into slightly unfamiliar linguistic territory.

"I speak Creole pretty well," says Klingler. "But I'm not very fluent in Cajun. Cajun can vary so much from region to region." One problem Klingler has is with the various Cajun words for "what." Some Cajun French speakers say "qui," others says "quoi." But before French dies out altogether in Louisiana, Klingler has vowed to find out who says what and why.

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000