Even though French is the language associated with Louisiana’s Cajuns, many modern-day Cajuns (myself included) did not fully learn the language until they were exposed to it formally in junior high and/or high school. For me, it was in “Madame” Connie Larson’s French classes at Eunice High School where I finally learned how to read and write enough French to feel a meaningful connection to the linguistic history of our culture.
A lot of us grew up around speakers of French (in my case, parents and grandparents) and were able to speak and understand quite a bit without the benefit of people like Madame Larson, but we were in no way fluent, or even conversationally-competent. Without some awareness of the proper spelling of terms, it is quite natural that many of us transliterated frequently used French terms – and many of those transliterations have stuck. That’s why these days, it’s common (and especially evident in social media) to see people write “sha” for cher. Cher (a term of endearment, and not the name of the septuagenarian, bejeweled, and bedazzled performer) translates to “dear,” and can also mean “expensive,” as in “Ça c’est trop cher, cher” (“That’s too expensive, dear).
In Stone Motel: Memoirs of a Cajun Boy I use a lot of French terms as well as some transliterated dialect. As I was writing, I had to look up many French terms to be sure I had not only the word correct, but also the necessary accent marks (it’s been a long while since I sat in Madame Larson’s class).
The two French terms I use most in my upcoming book are Mémère and Pépère. These are uppercase in most instances in the book because they are what we called our grandparents instead of “Grandmother” and “Grandfather.” These are also used in lowercase, when they are used in general terms, such as “He is my pépère.” I have Canadian-American Annick de Bellefeuille to thank for getting the spellings and proper use of accent marks for these two words, because until she had a look at my manuscript, I had used transliterated versions. It was Annick’s eagle eye on the French that inspired me to comb through the whole manuscript and look carefully at each instance of French, versus instances where a transliterated dialect word was used. In the end, I used both throughout, but there is more proper French because that is easier for readers and transliterations often invite disagreement. My rule of thumb for the final book was that, if something stopped the reader unnecessarily, then it was no good – and required a re-think.
In an early version of the manuscript, I wrote “dis,” “dat,” “dese,” and “dose” for “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” when the person speaking spoke that way in real life. Since many people in the book spoke that way, that early version was riddled with these words. A literary agent had a look at some of the pages and said that, while she “got” the dialect was key to telling a Cajun story, she felt publishers would have trouble accepting a book with too much of “dat.” Also, several early readers of the manuscript said the heavy use of dialect and transliteration, especially in three of the chapters that are essentially monologues (ie: all spoken/first-person), gave the book a big dose of authenticity, but ultimately, reading all that dialect was hard to get through. In the final draft, I erred on the side of readability. I did likewise on words that my close family members used regularly. Daddy commonly said “tart” for “thought” and “ting” for “thing,” among many others. Although this is the true language of a genuine “coon-ass,” I had to make a call on whether it served the story to leave too many of these spellings intact or to make those sentences easier to read by using the proper English, with the reader imagining the sound of a Cajun’s accent. In the end, I think I struck a good balance. You’ll have to let me know what you “tink” of all “dis” when the book comes out next year (from University Press of Mississippi).
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