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Silver Threads: A certain je ne sais quois

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

My husband has an elderly friend who during World War II once served as an interpreter for a U.S. Army officer having dealings with a French counterpart. After he’d taken part in one day’s briefing, the Frenchman detained him.

“Sir,” he said, preparing to apologize, “am I not getting this right?”

“You are,” said the general reassuringly. Then continued with something like, “I just love to hear you speak. You talk like my grandmother did.”

The interpreter was using a version of French he’d learned as a boy at home in Louisiana.

I got to thinking about this the other day while looking at some publicity for this Saturday’s annual la Fete Francaise at Ecole Bilingue. It also reminded me that there was a time when speaking French in school in Louisiana’s Cajun country was a punishable offense. Maybe the children had to write “I will speak only English in this classroom” 100 times. Perhaps they got a rap across the knuckles back in the day when things like that were allowed.

My husband, who’s been a New Orleanian for 83 years and counting,  remembers that while the youngsters he studied with here were bi-lingual, some of their parents and grandparents -- whether from the Lafayette area or from this city’s old French Creole families -- never did speak fluent English.

(I can relate to that, having taken a night class in French at Tulane University when I was 46 and gotten the professor so annoyed that he finally gave up on me. And at 78 I can’t even imagine going to live in another country and having to learn to speak the language.)

Then in 1968 along came the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), a state agency whose mandates include developing opportunities to use the French language in tourism, economic development, culture, education and international relations. Talk about a twist on the fate of the French language in Louisiana.

James R. Domengeaux, a former state legislator and former United States Congressman of ethnic French descent, was the driving force behind CODOFIL's creation. He began his crusade for restoring French in Louisiana after Senator Edgar Mouton Jr.  of Lafayette obtained passage of  a resolution for Louisiana school boards to help reverse the decline of the use of the French language within the state.

I wonder whether that will happen 50 years from now to the language of Spain, whose people also came to New Orleans in the 18th century and whose history is written on the face of the Cabildo and Presbytere and on the patios and balconies of the French Quarter.

You’ve heard all the griping and ranting about folks who “come here and don’t bother to learn the English language.” The other day, when I called my credit card company to resolve a situation, I was forced to listen to a looong, boring recitation in Spanish of the company’s telephone menu … it lasted almost 10 seconds!

Give ‘em a break, people, and meanwhile -- please join Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle-Orleans in celebrating the 15th anniversary of New Orleans’ la Fête Française. Fête proudly honors our city’s connection to the food, music, art and culture of France. The theme this year, A certain je ne sais quoi…, promises to inspire an exciting event that will take place at the school’s main campus at 821 General Pershing Street, between Magazine and Constance Streets.

 

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]