Will climate change wipe out French in Louisiana?

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Alces Adams singing “Viens Me Chercher.”

Patrick Cox: I went to see this guy recently. He’s the one singing this song. He wrote it too. His name’s Alces Adams. He lives about half way between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The last big hurricane to hit Louisiana was Ida, in August 2021. It destroyed Alces’ trailer.

Alces Adams: A tree fell on my living room kitchen area, and pushed everything to the back.

Patrick Cox: So that’s what we’re looking at right now.

Alces Adams: Yeah. And when that happened the whole back wall went also. So what you see on the wall is the back wall of the trailer.

Patrick Cox: The trailer’s all twisted with furniture spilling out, like it’s attacked by a pack of wild animals. Next to it now there’s a new trailer, Alces’ temporary home provided by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He takes us inside. The people I’m with — a linguist and a friend who runs a climate change tech company — they’re impressed. FEMA trailers aren’t usually so fancy.

Nathalie Dajko: Oh man!

Julia Kumari Drapkin: This is nice!

Alces Adams: I didn’t know what to expect.

Patrick Cox: You grew up right here?

Alces Adams: Right this street. When I was born I was living with my grandparents on the next street.

Patrick Cox: The older generation spoke French. Alces says that was his first language, though he and his siblings flipped to English among themselves.

Alces Adams: My grandma learned English. The only word I ever heard her say was “Yeah.” Everything else, speaking in French. She understood us, talking English. She chose not to speak English. So I suppose I got a bit of her in me, a bit of a rebel.

Patrick Cox: As a kid growing up in bayou country, there were two things that stood out, Alces says: Speaking French in addition to English, and living through storms. He had a great aunt who loved to tell him stories about storms from her childhood. The first big one Alces remembers was in 1965: Hurricane Betsy.

Alces Adams: Betsy, we survived at my grandmother’s house. Mama put us to bed. My dad was in the boat. He couldn’t come home. So we lived just almost across the street and so mama put us to bed. And then I heard my grandma was burning up the rosary. And so I said, “Mom, the bed’s moving.” “No, no, no, no. You’re dreaming, go back to sleep.” And my uncle, Momma’s brother, was living across the street, and he says, “Hey, the house is moving up and down.” “I told you, you didn’t believe me!” I was thinking of getting a sash or vest or something: “I survived Betsy, Katrina, Ida,.” All the monsters that I survived.

Patrick Cox: Now, though, Alces doesn’t know what’s next for him. He comes from a long line of people who’ve been compelled to move: from poverty, from threat of violence, from hurricanes. It’s the story of his ancestry. So is the French language. Alces knows that whenever a French speaker moves away from this part of Louisiana — whenever their house floods out or the roof blows off and makes a future here seem impossible — he knows that each time that happens, it’s another micro-blow to the survival of French here.

Alces Adams: Until 100 years ago, my family spoke French. That’s all we knew. English was forced on us about 100 years ago. It’s a beautiful language. I just love it. My great aunt, the one that told me stories about the storm, she didn’t learn any English growing up. It was beautiful and I loved listening to that.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. In this episode: Will climate change kill French in Louisiana?

Nathalie Dajko: My name is Nathalie Dajko and I am a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Patrick Cox: A linguistics professor. I first met Nathalie two years ago when I was reporting an episode about the English spoken in New Orleans– how it was changing, and how Hurricane Katrina had accelerated that. Sometime later, I found out , maybe Nathalie told me, I found out that for years — in fact since grad school at Tulane — she’d been studying what was happening with the French language in the part of Louisiana where French is most spoken: the lower bayou country near the Gulf Coast.

Nathalie Dajko: I’d been to France as a teenager — I did an exchange program in high school — and I knew that there were French speakers in Louisiana and I just wanted to hear their French. And that was my motivation for coming to Louisiana was to hear the French.

Patrick Cox: Which she did. She heard people who speak French fluently, people who could say nothing more than “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” And of course a lot of people in between. Nathalie knew that fewer people were speaking French, but she didn’t know why, or for that matter how much the language meant to them. Then Katrina came. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes. Some people ended up in camps that were scattered across a few southern states. Nathalie visited a few of the camps. She was working for Save the Children at the time.

Nathalie Dajko: Every now and again, we’d come across these French speakers and they would be so excited to meet somebody who spoke French and they would talk about how they missed the French and so on and so forth. People talking about constantly moving,about the language dying and the land eroding. And I was saying, “You know, I get the impression that what matters to people more than anything is this attachment to this land.”

Patrick Cox: After that, she began visiting people living in bayou country, interviewing them.

Sound of a man speaking French.

Patrick Cox: Here, a man tells Nathalie a story from when he was in the army. He was stationed in California, he says, and an officer — a captain — was trying to get him to break his habit of looking down while walking. He asks the captain, where are you from? The captain says, “Texas.” So he says to the captain, “Come with me to my house, in Louisiana. And look up while you walk. You won’t live long! If you don’t look down, the snakes will…” And he leaves that thought — what the snakes will do — he leaves it hanging. After that, he says, no one at the army base tried to get him to look up.

Nathalie takes me to see a woman called Nazia who she’s been visiting for years, a woman in her late eighties, mother of fifteen children. Nazia lives in a village where nearly all the houses were damaged by Hurricane Ida.

Sound of Nathalie and Nazia talking in French.

Patrick Cox: We don’t linger here: Nazia is frail and tired. But she enjoys chatting in French: she only speaks French. And she clearly enjoys Nathalie’s company. It’s the same everywhere we go. People know Nathalie, and they open up to her.

Nathalie Dajko: I like to think that it’s because I’m charming and friendly, but I think Louisiana is just that accepting, and I think there was in large part as well because I was studying French. People are proud of their language, justifiably so. And there they were for years and years, they were told their language was worthless and that they shouldn’t speak it. And they would have all these stories about, you know, a priest, whoever, who came down here and didn’t even speak French but told them they didn’t really speak French.

Patrick Cox: As ridiculous as that is, it’s true that Louisiana French isn’t standard French. This version of the language has a few of its own words and grammatical quirks. It sounds different — and is spelled differently too, at times. But is it incomprehensible to people in France? I ask Nathalie. She tells me the story of one of the old-timers she interviewed from the bayou, a guy who told her about when he fought in World War Two and ended up in France.

Nathalie Dajko: And the guy’s like, “This is great. I’m going to be able to talk to people!” And his friends all say, “They won’t understand you.” But he starts to hit on this waitress that they had at lunch or whatever.

Patrick Cox: And he’s not the only American soldier there who likes the look of the waitress. His commanding officer does too. The C.O. doesn’t speak French so he gets our guy from Louisiana to arrange a date with the waitress at seven that evening. Which our guy does but he fixes it for himself, an hour earlier. At seven o’clock, his non-French-speaking C.O. finds himself outmaneuvered and stood up.

Nathalie Dajko: Here they are liberating France and making dates with the locals because they can speak. But yeah, he was excited to go to France — and you get all these stories of validation. Like, “Everybody told me my language was not really French, but here I am in France, and it turns out it is all right. What did I tell you?”

Patrick Cox: I asked Nathalie to tell me the history of French in Louisiana. Which she did. But she wasn’t happy with the way she described it. She thought she was over-simplifying things. I thought it sounded crazily complicated. So here’s a bit of me and a bit of Nathalie.

The first French speakers to arrive in what is now Louisiana were colonialists from France, not well-off people– they didn’t speak especially fancy French. After a time they began importing enslaved Africans to the area. That the second group of French speakers — they were forced to speak the language, and they changed it up, improvised with it. That’s usually labeled Creole. Then in the 18th century came some other French speakers who were driven out of Canada’s maritime provinces. The Acadians, or Les Acadiens.

Nathalie Dajko: And so Acadiens becomes Aca-jun. And you drop the ‘A’ and it becomes Cajun. And that becomes Cajun in English.

Patrick Cox: Many Cajuns settled alongside bayous, slow-moving bodies of water that make up part of the Mississippi Delta. The word bayou comes from Cajun French, and possibly before that, from a Choctaw word meaning small stream.

The final wave of French speakers to arrive were from France in the nineteenth century. Since then, all these French speakers with their particular varieties have mixed. So to linguists like Nathalie, those varieties don’t exist any more, or at least not in isolation. The definitions, and the boundaries between them, have broken down.

Nathalie Dajko: People call their language by the name they give themselves. People will call it Cajun French. People will call it Creole if they identify themselves as Creole and vice versa. And so they will speak Creole, but call it Cajun French if they identify as Cajun, and it’s really complicated.

Patrick Cox: See what I mean?

There was one more group of French speakers, Native Americans. The history is murky, but we do know that in the early 1700s, several local tribes formed protective alliances with the colonial French. They adopted French and over time they lost their own languages. Some of their descendants still speak French, especially those who live in the far south, closer to the ocean, the floods, and the storms.

That’s where we went next.

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Patrick Cox: On one of the days I was in Louisiana, the weather was bad. We were supposed to drive from New Orleans to the Bayou but we nixed that plan. Instead, I walked a few blocks to the banks of the Mississippi. I wanted to test my recording gear, see how it held up in driving wind and rain. If my microphone could talk right then, it would have said, “I’m with stupid.”

Sound of strong winds.

Patrick Cox: It’s getting a little too windy here. Ooh, t’s crazy now. I think I want to be indoors.

Patrick Cox: Things got worse. Back in my hotel, I switched on the TV.

Sound of TV: “A tornado warning has been issued for our area”

Patrick Cox: That alert interrupted the Weather Channel commentary every few minutes.

Weather Channel: That looked like a proper tornado, that was a wedge. Oh man. So again tracking the tornado warning, very serious situation here in New Orleans .

Patrick Cox: It turned out to be New Orleans’ strongest tornado on record with winds of up to 160 miles per hour. It touched down and stayed on the ground for more than eleven miles, killing one person and plowing through dozens of homes– homes, many of them, that had been rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

Patrick Cox: There’s brilliant sunshine the next day. We drive south to bayou country. There’s water everywhere in Louisiana. But the further south you go, the more of it there is. Pretty much every house here is built on pilings. We drive across a causeway to an island: the Isle de Jean Charles. We pass one abandoned dwelling after another. Collapsed walls, caved-in roofs. Sometimes just piles of debris. Some of the damage looks years old. A lot of it, though, looks new, like from last year’s Hurricane Ida. A few of the houses are being fixed up a bit. Most aren’t.

We stop near the end of the road,, at a house with a sign outside. It says, “Isle de Jean Charles is not dead. Climate change sucks.” We knock on the door of the trailer next to the house. There’s three of us, Nathalie, me and Julia Kumari Drapkin, my friend who runs the climate change tech company. A guy in a wheelchair comes out. He’s happy his sign made us stop.

Chris Brunet: You want to a place to sit, there’s a chair right there?

Julia Kumari Drapkin: We’ve been in a car for two hours.

Chris Brunet: All right so what are you up to?

Patrick Cox: My name’s Patrick.

Chris Brunet: My name is Chris Brunet

Patrick Cox: How to you spell Brunet?

Chris Brunet: B-R-U-N-E-T

Patrick Cox: Do you speak French?

Chris Brunet: Oui, je parle français.

Patrick Cox: Chris and Nathalie chat about his linguistic upbringing. He spoke French at home, English at school. His grandmother only spoke French, his parents- were bilingual. Everyone on the island was a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. (Surprisingly, Nathalie and Chris have never met, but it doesn’t take too long before they figure out some connections.)

Patrick Cox: What happened here with the house?

Chris Brunet: The storm hit it. A Cat 4 and it’s still standing. I’ve always lived on the island my whole life, I’ve never lived no other place. And so in the 16 years since I moved back in this house, Hurricane Ida is the first storm to put damage to the house. You know I live in a hurricane-prone area. I was surrounded by storm damage, but I never had storm damage. So it’s just Ida because of the wind and rain and power that she had. She did some damage. But it’s still standing and it’s repairable.

Patrick Cox: That’s good. Because there’s so many of the ones that we’ve seen are beyond that.

Chris Brunet: Oh yeah, just like my aunt’s house next door, my mom’s sister. The house was just right there vacant but the family was coming down to check on it. It’s gone now.

Patrick Cox: Also likely to be gone soon is this island. In the past 65 years, Isle de Jean Charles has shrunk from 22,000 acres to just 320. Even by the standards of south Louisiana, that’s rapid. It’s not just the storms that are doing this, it’s a bunch of things: rising sea levels, the rerouting of the Mississippi river– some of it natural, some engineered– canal construction, land erosion, some of that caused by oil and gas extraction. Also, the levee system which is a life-saver if you live within it, potentially catastrophic if you’re on the wrong side of it. It’s all these things and more. It’s why Chris, and almost everyone else on the island is leaving.

Patrick Cox: How far will you move?

Chris Brunet: 35 miles in. I’m part of that relocation plan that the state received that 48 million dollars for.

Patrick Cox: That money came from the Feds. It’s the first time the Federal Government has planned a mass relocation based on climate change. They’re moving to a place protected by levees but where virtually no one speaks French. At times when we speak Chris is optimistic about French. At other times less so.

Chris Brunet: And I guess for your question, if people end up moving away, does French get set aside: Yeah, I guess so.

Patrick Cox: So many people– French-speakers, left long ago, when the land on the island became impossible to farm. The water had become salty from the ocean. First the ash trees disappeared, but in his grandparents’ days– even in his childhood, the land was bountiful.

Chris Brunet: The fruit trees: oranges, bananas, apples, cantaloupe, watermelon, pecans, blackberries, persimmons.

Patrick Cox: You get the feeling that Chris may be one the last people to leave the island, before it totally vanishes. He’s keeping his place, turning it into his camp, he says. My friend Julia, of the climate change company, asks him to define the word, “home.”

Chris Brunet: Over here.

Julia Kumari Drapkin: What does that mean?

Chris Brunet: Over here, where I belong.

Julia Kumari Drapkin: What does that mean?

Chris Brunet: Where there’s that sense of belonging. That’s where I come from. It is just over here.

Patrick Cox: You’re going to miss it when you go.

Chris Brunet: Well, I tell them myself that I know you’re building me a house, but it’s going to be a long time before it’s home because, you know, I mean, we’ve been over here for generations. This is the only place ever known as home. And then with being Native Americans– you know, at a time whenever the world finished with you, you know, you go back home, you have a sense of belonging. I know probably that’s what I will or not, probably I know I made a decision to be part of the resettlement, but I’ve been taking it one step at a time. I’m not confused. I’m not filled with anxieties. That is just to say that I’m walking over there real slow and I’m in no rush to get there.

Patrick Cox: After we say goodbye to Chris, I kept wondering about their move from the island and whether French will survive among the olvder tribal members. Most of them will be sticking together, moving to the same new place. But it’s not the same as life on the island where they’ve been relatively isolated. In their new home, they’ll be surrounded by English speakers. Can you, as a group, move the place where you live, I ask Nathalie, and still keep the language intact? She’s not sure.

Nathalie Dajko: If you’re mapping your community onto a landscape and you’re mapping it onto your language in the same way, then you could theoretically move the language and thereby move the place. Not perfectly, but you know, to a large degree and still be psychologically OK. Right? Because it’s still the place, even if it’s in a new space. But if you lose both, then what have you got? If you’ve matched your community onto both the physical space and this linguistic space, and now both are gone, like, what are you anchored to anymore?

Patrick Cox: Anchored is an apt metaphor for this watery part of the world. No place is anchored here anymore, certainly not the French language. Maybe all that’s anchored are the stories that people tell their children and grandchildren– of moving every generation or two up the bayou, away from the ocean. Leaving their land behind. Leaving previous generations too. One time Nathalie asked a guy with a boat to take her to where everyone from his town used to live. He took her about ten miles down the bayou.

Nathalie Dajko: And when we stop the boat, and I hear from behind me, “I don’t know about this, Natalie!” And then I turn around and he’s got horseflies all over him– deer flies, rather. And then at that instant right, they start biting me. And it’s just this, Oh, you can hear we get out the boat anyway for some reason, and I’ve got the camera with me because I’m going to videotape this and immediately the cameras on the ground were doing this, and it’s like, we’re getting back in the boat. This is a waste of time. But it was. It’s miserable, right? Like, it’s just uninhabitable. And the reason they left is because it was uninhabitable. But they’re abandoning, you know, long standing settlements and they’ve got a cemetery, they’ve abandoned, right, like their ancestors are in the ground there. They’re literally abandoning their ancestors there.

Patrick Cox: That particular town– it’s called Pointe-aux-Chênes– in the newer part of town where people moved to, there’s an effort to start a French immersion program at the elementary school. But last year the school closed after years of declining enrollment. First, re-opening the school and then introducing a French program, it seems like a long shot. The whole thing seems like a long shot: the survival of French here, as people move away. It’s not like previous migrations, when people moved from one rural community to another. Now they’re moving to towns and cities further away. I ask Nathalie what she thinks will happen.

Nathalie Dajko: If I had to predict I would suggest that people are not going to maintain French. But…

Patrick Cox: Nathalie often comes up with an idea, then says “but” and follows it with a contrasting idea. But here after she says that “but,” she doesn’t offer a contrasting prediction for French. Instead she gets really animated. You can’t predict some things when it comes to language and future. Really, I say? Really, she says.

Nathalie Dajko: People have been predicting the death of Louisiana French for generations and it just won’t die, which you know, is interesting because you can’t predict anything with language. This is the thing, right? You cannot predict what people are going to do. They’re worse than predicting the weather. They always do something you don’t expect.

Patrick Cox: If you’d like to know more about this group of French speakers, Nathalie Dajko has written a wonderful book about it. It’s called French on Shifting Ground: Cultural and Coastal Erosion in South Louisiana.

Many thanks to Nathalie. Thanks also to Chuckie Verdin and Alex Kolker, both of whom filled in some huge gaps in my knowledge. Special thanks to my friend Julia Kumari Drapkin, who asked all the smart questions in our interviews and took a bunch of fabulous photos, which you can see in the published transcript to this episode.There’s a link in the show notes. Julia runs ISeeChange, a climate change tech company that invites local communities to come up with solutions to climate-based issues in their own backyard.

Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our newsletter and social media.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a group of podcasters, all interested in telling stories that would otherwise slip by unnoticed. Like Open Source, the world’s first ever podcast. It’s a show about arts, ideas, and politics. In the latest episode, the war in Yemen and American arms sales.

That’s it for this time. Thanks for listening. See you in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.



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