How to Speak Cajun English (Or at Least Understand It)
It may surprise many people to learn that most Cajuns under the age of 50 don't speak French; even those who do don't usually speak it as their first language. However, almost all of us grow up speaking some French, and our vocabulary is full of enough francophone words and mistranslated English phrases that it can be quite confusing to outsiders. (Even Louisiana residents who don't live in Acadiana.)
Cajun English is mostly American English, with a smattering of French words. Occasionally, we use French syntax when we speak English.
Cajun English is so widely used in towns like Ville Platte and Breaux Bridge that many people don't see the difference between Cajun English and American English, so we're not intentionally being difficult. Quite the opposite, generally speaking, Cajuns love visitors and are warm and welcoming to outsiders. However, we tease those we like, and if you look bewildered, we may very well have a bit of fun at your expense.
(Probably your biggest hurdle)
When education became compulsory in Louisiana, Cajun children were forced to go to school and speak English. My three Cajun grandparents all remember brutal punishments at the hands of teachers if they were caught speaking their native language. As a result, they didn't teach my parents to speak French, and so my parents were only able to teach me the little they picked up. While speaking two languages is considered a sign of intelligence and sophistication now, it was considered a sign of ignorance and poverty two generations ago. Becaue of this, most Cajuns you'll meet will speak English, especially if they know you are an outsider. Older Cajuns, and those in rural or isolated communities, usually speak with thicker accents.
Parisian French (the French spoken in France, is soft, and full of S's and C's. Cajun French is more nasal and slower with H's, T's, and D's. Cajun English also differs from the American accents surrounding us. Compared to those with Southern drawls, Cajun English seems rapid and lively; Cajuns often "speak with their hands" and cut out pieces of words.One of the most classic tell-tale signs of a Cajun accent is replacing the "th" combination in English words with D's or T's. ("Wha dat ting ya got?" rather than "What's that thing you have?")
If you speak English as your native language, the following list will be very helpful to you, in beginning to understand the way Cajuns pronounce words. Read the following names as you would in English: Matthew, Lydia, Raphael, Alida, Richard, Granger, Hollier, Hebert,
Cajuns pronounce these names:
English usually puts the emphasis on the beginning syllable, while French puts in on the last. In Cajun English, we tend to emphasize the last syllable, as in French, which often makes our speech difficult to understand until outsiders listen carefully.
Idioms are expressions which, if taken literally, usually don't make much sense. In English there is the expression "it's raining cats and dogs" meaning "it's raining very hard". Like societies throughout the world, Acadiana has it's own share of these phrases. Here are some you may hear:
If you are riding in a car with a Cajun, they may ask you, "You wanna get down with me?" when you park somewhere. This means, "Do you want to get out of the car and come in with me?"
If you are working with a Cajun, they may ask you to "save" something; usually this means to put that thing away. (Unless of course, it's obvious that something is in need of actual saving. i.e.- a kitten is about to run into the road.)
Cajuns and Creoles both will say they are going to "make groceries," rather than saying "buy groceries".
"I'm Patton's (pronounced pah-tan-s) duck" means that they are not particular, or don't have a preference of the options available.
"It gave me the frissons" means "It gave me the chills" or "It made me shiver". People who have involuntary muscle spasms, will also dismiss it saying, "I just caught a frisson."
"Pass a good time" means to have fun.
"'Gardes don" (pronounced gahd-A daw(n)) means "look at that".
"My foot" (or "hand" or "head" etc.) is kind of the Cajun version of "Whatever!"
"Mais, J'mais!" is the Cajun equivalent of "But I never!"
Cajun OnStar - (Did I mention that Cajuns like to pick?)
Cajuns love to joke, and will often make themselves look foolish to play with people and see how long they can be strung along.
(Definition: what da pries give ya afta confession)
Okay, that's an old joke. For those of you who don't know what "syntax" means, it is "the way that a sentence is arranged". For the most part, Cajuns speak English in the traditional English/American syntax. There are some ways that Cajun English is unique, though.
When a Cajun is trying to emphasize an affirmative or negative sentence, they will often revert to French syntax. "No, I didn't do that!" becomes "I didn't do that, No!" One of the sweetest ways a Cajun man can express his affections is to say, "I love you, yeah."
We will also add directional pronouns to add emphasize. "Me, I don't have any, no."
Rather than saying "a lot" or "very" Cajuns will often double an adjective. "Don't drink that yet; it's hot hot!" "Have you seen Greg's new truck? It's big big!"
Cajun Sites You Ought to Visit
- LSU Department of French Studies
LSU is Louisiana's flagship university, and although UL is the official college of Cajun Country, LSU has a good French Studies Department.
This organization has done more to restore French to Louisiana than any other.
- Cajun Radio
A good source for all things Cajun
Frequently Used French Words
(Because some things are best expressed in French)
Cher- Forget the woman who sang with Bono, this word isn't pronounced "share;" the correct Cajun pronunciation is "sha" and it means "sweet" or "dear". Cajun women are more prone to say "Cher bebe!" than "What a cute baby!"
Fache- pronounced "Fa-shay" It means "angry" and is thrown into English sentences. "She's really fache now."
Mais la!- "May La" it's an expression of exasperation.
"Mais" means "but" and is often used in place of it in English sentences. "I don't know, mais I've got a good feeling about this."
"Ta Tie" I don't know how to spell this one in French, so I spelled it phonetically. It means a monster, or scary creature. It's also a pet name for little boys, as in, "Come here, you lil ta tie."
"Mange" pronounced "maw-sg-A" means "to eat" and is often used in place of "eat".
"Tres" pronounced "Th-ray" means "very" and "Beaucoup" (boo-coo) means "a lot," both of these are scattered into English sentences.