Ortense & DeJean

It’s cher, y’all, not ‘sha’.

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).

Pépère and Mémère, (DeJean and Ortense Thompson) Ville Platte, Louisiana.

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 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 “coonass,” 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 you read the book (from University Press of Mississippi).


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10 thoughts on “It’s cher, y’all, not ‘sha’.

  1. I once taught a girl whose name was spelled SHA. However, unlike the current use of “sha” as opposed to the more correct “cher,” her name was pronounced SHAY. Unfortunately for her, her parents were either unable or unwilling to spell her name with any semblance of normalcy, ensuring that (a) her name would be mispronounced in perpetuity and (b) she could never, ever, ever get a keychain at Stuckey’s with her name on it.

    As a reader, I sometimes get bogged down in the author’s efforts to be dialectically authentic, so I support your decision to use “dat” sparingly. I’m sure that, as we read Canasta Summers we will “hear” it in our heads in the right accent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha! That’s hilarious – poor girl!! I can NEVER find a Morris keychain at Stuckey’s either – so humiliating. Meanwhile, I hope you’re right that readers will hear the accent. All parts crossed! xoxo, Valerie!


  3. The first time I heard the singer Kevin Parent sing, I said to myself, “Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” then laughed to myself. I hadn’t heard Cajun dialect in years, but I “got it!” I wouldn’t have minded the “dese” and “dats” of the book. I heard a lot of that in New England as a kid growing up in a Franco-American community.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Earl! My dad said it was because of his Cajun French and Franglais dialect that he and his fellow Cajun buddies ate well in the French countryside during World War II. You never know when it’s going to resonate with people around you! Thanks for reading the blog!


  4. As an Acadian growing up speaking French in the Maritime provinces, and living in French speaking Québec, I can appreciate the difficulty of choosing wether to spell a word properly or phonetically in French or English. You might want to see the way Acadian writer France Daigle does this when she writes conversations among chiac (franglais) speaking characters (she writes in French). Personally, in the case of the properly spelled pépère, I would write it as pépére, the way we pronounce it in Acadia, not Québec. I suspect that word is pronounced the same way in Louisiana.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you! The manuscript is with the publishers, in edit. When it comes back to me, I’ll be able to go through it again to reconcile issues. I’ve made a note to revisit those accents.


  6. Morris,
    I sometimes wonder why Kathryn Stockett’s, “The Help”, was published. The southern dialects are so heavily written throughout and maybe that is why she got over sixty rejections. Why is it we as writer’s have to be so politically correct these days? It’s so unauthentic. It’s frustrating. We talk so informal andddd use bad grammar in the south to boot and our sentences are loaded with cliches that don’t even make sense. But that’s how we truly are and what’ makes people love us dearly or hate us. But I hear more people love us, especially from the North, like NY. Last time I visited, all they wanted me to do was talk. And buy me drinks and compliment me. One guy asked me to marry him. I declined. I had only known him for a few minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

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