Speaking in Tongues


New Orleans. -- We had a conference here on "languages in Louisiana," and people talked about all the languages, dialects and accents that abound in this region. There is Cajun French, Cajun-English, Spanish, Creole English, Black English, Irish Channel English and a dozen other patois and slangs in between, and don't forget Romanian-Nawrleans Jive.

This profusion of peculiar sound makes us interesting to ourselves as well as to outsiders, but there are political and emotional traps in all the diversity. A teacher from the Cajun area of Southern Louisiana asked a seemingly harmless question. "Should education be in English?" Tom Dent, black poet and civil-rights leader from New Orleans, answered that English seemed to him to be the language of the land, and if a child was to get ahead in America, he or she better speak the best English they can.

Well, that was the mouche dans le lait for the angry teacher who accused Tom of racism, New Orleans chauvinism and worse. Jumping in where les anges fear to pirouette, I said that languages, dialects and accents are eminently welcome in the English language which has 100,000 words, 60,000 more than French, which is patrolled for purity by the Academie Francaise. That was probably an incredibly chauvinistic thing to say, so I added quickly a description of the black-robed academicians condemning words to death for being un-French. Nothing like a David-like image to calm the waters.

Cajun French is in no imminent danger of being fired upon by the academy, however, since it is a dialect that has only recently experienced a resurgence, thanks to loving enthusiasts, I wholly support the efforts of regional cultures to take pride in their sounds and the poetry of their words. But I'm afraid that when it comes to mainstream education, I agree with Tom. The language of the land is American English. And there are no purists patrolling it, cher.

Andrei Codrescu is editor of "Exquisite Corpse."

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