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Preserving Louisiana's version of the French language

VILLE PLATTE, La. --- Qui c'est qui parle? Jim Soileau asked, his baritone filling the studio of radio station KVPI and traveling across the Cajun prairie.
Who's speaking?

It was a Monday morning, and the phone lines were open for La Tasse de Café (The Cup of Coffee), one of the last vestiges of French-language talk programming on Louisiana radio.

Mr. Soileau, 77, arrived at the station before daybreak to announce the news in French. At 8 a.m., he joined the station's general manager, Mark Layne, to welcome the voices that began trickling in from the rice farms, tiny towns and two-lane highways in and around Evangeline Parish.

Some callers were senior citizens, eager to reminisce in the fluent French they had learned around their parents' breakfast tables. Some were younger, and clumsier with the language. There were the regular callers, like Buffy from Mamou, who riffed on the news and the weather. There were the merely bilingual-curious and the clever conteurs telling wry tales of Louisiana life and often flip-flopping, like Mr. Soileau, from French to English and back.

A fixture at this family-owned radio station since the mid-1960s, La Tasse de Café serves as a forum for gossip and light amusement, a glorified small-town party line interrupted by Mr. Soileau's love letters to local sponsors like Teet's Food Store. (N'oubliez pas les spéciales, he said that Monday, les cuisses de poulet, chicken drumsticks, five-pound box, $3.45!)

But the show is also a conscious effort to sustain an iteration of French that followed its own evolutionary path here, far from the famed vigilance of the Académie Française. Many now believe Louisiana French to be endangered, even as other aspects of the state's rural culture flourish amid the homogenizing forces of modern life.

We're not losing the music. We're not losing the food, Mr. Layne said from his office in Ville Platte, a city of 7,500 about two and a half hours west of New Orleans. But we're losing what I think is the most important thing, which is the language.

The issues of language and culture tend to play out in complicated ways in Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, has made a point of warning about Muslim immigrants who have not adapted to Western cultures and about any groups of people who would come to the United States to live in unassimilated enclaves and not learn English. The Cajuns here were once pushed to assimilate, specifically through laws discouraging them from speaking French in school. But today, their culture thrives in a conservative area, where patriotism runs neck and neck with fierce regional pride.

Mr. Soileau, for example, said he would be comfortable with English becoming the official language of the United States, but he added, I think the government should not dictate to you how you should speak.

So his show plays out as a lesson in a language swimming against the tide. According to census figures, Louisiana had more than 250,000 French speakers in 1990; by 2013 there were about 100,000.

A caller asked about a curious verb Mr. Soileau had used, cheter. What did that mean? To beg, he said, noting later that it probably could not be found in the dictionary.

How do you say groundhog? How about chiropractor?

Mr. Soileau, a veteran broadcaster, is recognized as an expert in the art of Louisiana French. His indispensable credential, in a primarily spoken language, is an education at his grandmother's knee.



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