A century and two years ago, as the Great Influenza ripped its way through the nation, a young mother in rural Louisiana prayed fervently as five of her sons took ill in rapid succession. The eldest three boys were aged between 17 and 20 and had shouldered most of the responsibility for the farming work required to keep the household afloat. The young mother, without access to medicine or even news, had no choice but to watch five of her boys die one by one. They were buried in 1918, without a funeral, in a nearby Methodist cemetery because the Catholic one was too far away. Their loss devastated the young mother and her remaining children, one of whom lived to tell the tale to her own daughter, Sylvia, now in her 80s, who then told it to Ashlee Michot of Ville Platte in 2020 in the same language — Louisiana French.
Michot, a relatively young mother herself, is among the dwindling number of folks fluent in the heritage language of Louisiana French, a complex dialect that was the primary vernacular spoken throughout Acadiana in the early 1900s. Once omnipresent, the language was so thoroughly punished out of the mouths of students throughout the first half of the 20th century that it is today in serious danger of disappearing into the realm of cultural memory. Most who grew up speaking it — like Miss Sylvia, as Michot affectionately calls her — are now in the sunset years of their lives.
Motivated by a desire to preserve the language and all of the complex cultural values it encapsulates, Michot has teamed up with UL’s Center for Louisiana Studies to interview elders for whom Louisiana French was a mother tongue about their experiences living through the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a weird process for me,” Michot says of the project. “Because I’ve just kind of scraped my French up from everywhere.”
Beyond the words and phrases she learned growing up, Michot studied French in Nova Scotia through the Université Sainte Anne immersion program in her twenties. After returning to Louisiana fluent — as far as she could tell, anyhow — Michot remembers enthusiastically attempting a conversation with “this lady from Vermilion Parish,” she says, then laughs. “I couldn’t understand a word she said.”
Even through the glitch and delay of video conferencing software, Michot is warm and direct. A classroom French teacher at Beau Chêne High School in Arnaudville, she is also the editor of a 2019 anthology titled Ô Malheureuse, a collection of Louisiana womens’ French language writings. And, after a decade of conversations in Louisiana French with folks from all different corners of the state, Michot doesn’t get so easily thrown by the language anymore.
“I think it’s tripped out [for the elders],” she says. “Because I’m a young person that understands all these country things they talk about — different words for parts of a plough, or different plants, verbs you don’t use every day.”
One of the goals of the project “is to see what vocabulary they’re using to talk about [the pandemic],” Michot says. “And if they have any recollection of other times that have been like this — disasters, illnesses, hurricanes, floods.”
And although some, like Miss Sylvia, shared stories with Michot from the time of the Great Influenza, “most of them have told me they’ve never seen anything like this,” says Michot. “They’re saying, ‘if you can’t go to Mass, you know it’s pretty bad.’”
Josh Caffery, director of the Center for Louisiana Studies, credits the inception of the project with a grim realization. “I started to read about the demographics of the people who were disproportionately affected [by the coronavirus], particularly with respect to age,” he says. “It occurred to me that those same demographics match up with native Louisiana French speakers, who are by and large older people.”
In addition to filling hospital beds across Acadiana, Caffery posits that the coronavirus has also provided a swift and sobering preview of a world with significantly less Cajun culture in it. In his view, culture by and large happens when people come together, “whether it’s in a dance hall or at a house party or sitting around having a story-swapping session. That’s where I feel culture is most powerful — the seat that it originates from.” With the continued risk of contagion precluding all but the most threadbare versions of such gatherings, archives like those at the Center for Louisiana Studies take on a whole new level of import as safehouses for a culture that, pre-COVID, was ubiquitous enough to take for granted.
Beyond preserving a disappearing language and lifeway, Caffery also says he hopes the project might simply provide an opportunity for elders to socialize, albeit virtually, with younger folks.
“[Elders] are, in some cases, dying alone, or they’re isolated from their family,” he said. “So it was great to be able to reach out to people like Ashley, and just provide them with an occasion to have fun, to have a conversation with an older person.”
One of the elders Michot interviewed spent a good deal of time quarantined at a nursing home, where “he listened to a radio station the whole time,” she says. “He credits one of the DJs with saving his life, because that was his only company.”
Michot is quick to clarify, however, that he is “tough as nails,” and expounds on the wonderful care he got from the nurses and aides. Even Miss Sylvia made a point to contrast her grandmother’s experience during the 1918 pandemic with her own experience during coronavirus: “If I need medicine, it gets delivered to my door,’ she said, ‘and I have the internet, and can talk to my family.’”
Michot shakes her head and smiles: “They’re not feeling sorry for themselves, I’ll tell you that.”
Louisiana French, like the elders who still speak it, has a history of resilience that can’t be overstated. According to Caffery, the language “houses stories, recipes, characters, motifs and folk wisdom… that are centuries old. I mean, some of the same stories have been found all the way back in manuscripts from the 1300s.” These stories, he emphasizes, “were able to endure hundreds of years, transatlantic travel, and however many plagues and pestilences along the way, and they’re still surfacing here.” Beyond its European roots, the language also contains a plethora of Native words and phrases from the region — chaoui, for example, means racoon and comes from the Choctaw language. These words persist in the language, just as people of Indigenous descent persist, despite hundreds of years of ongoing violence and colonialism.
Chris Segura, the archivist with the Center for Louisiana Studies, notes that every now and then musicians will discover old tunes in their vast collection of folk music and write cover versions of them. Even during the pandemic, while working remotely, Segura tells me, the collection is still acquiring new material. (Anyone with recordings to contribute is encouraged to get in touch with the center to learn more about how to share them with the archive.)
In addition to its storehouse of stories and songs, Michot points to something even more meaningful and worthy of preservation in Louisiana French. In her view, there are values deeply embedded within the language itself. These qualities — resourcefulness, playfulness and humility chief among them — are essential to the whole ethos of Cajun culture. In fact, these values were so tightly woven into the fabric of Michot’s world growing up that she wasn’t even conscious of their import.
“Where I’m from, we never called ourselves Cajun,” she says. “We just lived in line with those values.” She jokes that she hopes she hasn’t ruined her boys too much with her insistence on their learning a little bit of French every day. “I hope that they just live the culture,” she says. “And not be told so much about it.”
For Michot, cultivating a deeper understanding of Louisiana French through these interviews with elders has been akin to “piecing together a personality, something we lost — and it will never be like it used to be, but when you feel it, you feel it, you know?”
She takes a breath and tries to explain. “It’s something about the love within the language,” she decides. “Or the metaphors in the language, or the familiarity. Or maybe it’s the playfulness.” She smiles. “I’m not sure what it is. I’ve really experienced it, though, on a deep level when I speak French with somebody. Just the manière d’esprit — the way of being, the manner of spirit,” she says. “It’s different.”