French in North America by the beginning of the 20th century

by Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

The text below is an excerpt from "The American Language" (1921).

The French spoken in Canada has been so extensively studied and literature is so accessible that it is scarcely necessary to describe it at any length. A very extensive investigation of it was undertaken by the late Dr. A. M. Elliott, of the Johns Hopkins University; his conclusions may be found in the American Journal of Philology.
(10) Since then researches into its history, phonology and morphology have been made by James Geddes, Jr.,(11) A. F. Chamberlain(12) and other competent philologists, and there has grown up an extensive literature by native, French-speaking Canadians.(13) Dr. Elliott says that alarmed purists predicted so long ago as 1817 that the French of Canada would be completely obliterated by English, and this fear still shows itself in all discussions of the subject by French-Canadians. But the language continues as the daily speech of perhaps 1,500,000 persons, and still has an official status, and is often heard in the Dominion Parliament. “The effect of English on the French,” says Elliott, “has been immeasurably greater than that of French on the English…. The French has made use of all the productive means—suffixes, prefixes—at its disposal to incorporate the English vocables in its word-supply,… and to adapt them by a skilful use of its inflectional apparatus to all the requirements of a rigid grammatical system.” On one page of N. E. Dionne’s lexicon I find the following loan-words from English: barkeeper, bargaine (used in place of marché), bar-room, bull’s-eye, buckwheat, buggy, buck-board, bugle, bully, bum, business, bus. As will be observed, a large proportion of them are not really English at all, but American. Many other Americanisms have got into the language, e. g., gang (in the political sense), greenback, ice-cream, elevateur, knickerbockers, trolley-car, sweater, swell (as an adjective of all work), caucus, lofeur (=loafer, a loan-word originally German) and lager, another. “Comme tu es swell ce matin, vas-tu aux noces?” —this is now excellent Canadian French. So is gologne (=go’long). Louvigny de Montigny, in “La Langue Française au Canada,” complains bitterly that American words and phrases are relentlessly driving out French words and phrases, even when the latter are quite as clear and convenient. Thus, un patron, throughout French Canada, is now un boss, pétrole is l’huile de charbon (=coal-oil), une bonne à tout faire is une servante générale, and un article d’occasion is un article de seconde main!

The French dialect spoken by the Creoles and their colored retainers in Louisiana has been extensively studied,(14) as has the dialect of the French West Indies. Its principal characters must be familiar to every reader of the stories of Lafcadio Hearn, George W. Cable, Kate Chopin and Grace Elizabeth King. It produced a large oral literature, chiefly in the form of songs, during the days of actual French rule in Louisiana, and some of this literature is still preserved, though the French-speaking population of the state is rapidly diminishing, and New Orleans is now a thoroughly American city. But the written literature of the Creoles was almost wholly in standard French. Curiously enough, nearly the whole of it was produced, not during the days of French rule, but after the American occupation in 1803. “It was not until after the War of 1812,” says a recent historian of it,(15) “that letters really flourished in French Louisiana. The contentment and prosperity that filled the forty years between 1820 and 1860 encouraged the growth of a vigorous and in some respects a native literature, comprising plays, novels, and poems.” The chief dramatists of the period were Placide Canonge, A. Lussan, Oscar Dugué, Le Blanc de Villeneufve, P. Pérennes and Charles Testut; today all their works are dead, and they themselves are but names. Testut was also a poet and novelist; other novelists were Canonge, Alfred Mercier, Alexandre Barde, Adrien Rouquette, Jacques de Roquigny and Charles Lamaître. The principal poets were Dominique Rouquette, Tullius Saint-Céran, Constant Lepouzé, Felix de Courmont, Alexandre Latil, A. Lussan, and Armand Lanusse. But the most competent of all the Creole authors was Charles E. A. Gayerré (1805-95), who was at once historian, dramatist and novelist. Today the Creole literature is practically extinct. A few poets and essayists are still at work, but they are of no importance.


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