The Cajuns spoke French almost exclusively until the 20th
century. Many would learn enough English to get along in an increasingly
Anglo society as the 19th century progressed, but their main language
was Cajun French. The basics of the language is their Acadian French,
or the language of 17th century France. As the other cultures of
south Louisiana intermingled with the Acadians, certain words from other
languages were incorporated. Although a modern Frenchman and someone
speaking Cajun French would generally understand each other, there are
specific differences in usage and terminology.
One of the major changes in the Cajun culture came in a series of events from 1912 to 1921. This was spurred on by the Progressive movement, the pro-American mindset due to WWI, and the communist developments in Russia. The push was to conform everything to American values.
For Cajuns, their French language had always been a factor in bonding them together. The idea that everyone should espouse American middle-class values brought reform to Louisiana at the beginning of the twentieth century. Pres. Teddy Roosevelt was a proponent of the ‘melting pot’ philosophy. The movement was led by people in Louisiana such as Progressive Luther Hall, elected governor in 1912. In July of that year, the legislature passed an act allowing the Department of Education to select all books and curricula for public schools. Starting the next year, English was stressed throughout the curricula, essentially banning French from the schools. In 1916, the state legislature approved Act 27, which required that all children attend public school … where English was to be THE language. This implicitly meant that the Cajun children that were brought up speaking French in their homes would have to learn English. The events were completed in 1921 when the Louisiana Constitution was changed so that all school proceedings had to be conducted in English. This succession of events led to many Cajuns growing up without learning their ancestral language. Stories abound of Cajun children being punished for speaking French at school. While this effort helped Cajuns function in a primarily English-speaking world, it was also taking away a part of what kept them together as a culture.
As they moved into a society that was more mixed, French was used less and less. If you are trapping down the bayou, and the only people you meet are family and friends, French would do just fine. But when you went to the city, went out of town for college, other jobs, and military service, French was rarely used. Not only did this mean that they could interact with outsiders more, it meant that they were less separated. They weren't isolated from the English-speaking American society any more.
This does not mean that the Cajun French language disappeared. Most of the parents of children in school for the first few decades of the century had grown up speaking French and still spoke it in the home. Children would learn English at school, but still learned some French in the home. As that English-educated generation grew up and had their own families, the use of French in the home was decreased with each generation. Some Cajun families, especially in more rural areas, continued to pass along the Cajun French language throughout the twentieth century.
While learning and speaking French was discouraged earlier in the century, things began to turn around in the 1960s. Faced with the prospect of losing their language, CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) was established in 1968 to help bring interest in the French language back to the educational system. Less than 5% of Cajuns born in the last fifty years speak French as their primary language. CODOFIL was led by those “Genteel Acadians” and not the common Cajun. The French being taught was not Cajun French. Still, it was a move in the right direction. French immersion programs can now be found across Acadiana.
LSU began offering Cajun French classes in 1977. Father Jules Daigle wrote a Cajun dictionary in 1992
Zachary Richard founded Action Cadienne to advocate for the Cajun French language. The group maintains that the language is integral to the continuation of Cajun culture.