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Revitalizing Louisiana Creole with a digital tool

Elected a Junior Research Fellow in Linguistics in 2020, Dr Oliver Mayeux’s research on Louisiana Creole has contributed to a new Google app helping to revitalize endangered indigenous languages around the world. Here he explains his fascination for languages and the varied routes they take him.

Dr Oliver Mayeux was fascinated by languages as a child

What is Louisiana Creole?

Louisiana Creole came into being just 300 years ago in communities of people who were enslaved on the many plantations which lined the lower Mississippi River. Those who were taken from Africa and enslaved were intentionally separated from their linguistic and cultural groups. They also had no knowledge of French which, in Colonial Louisiana, was the language of the slaveholders and overseers. A new common language derived from these influences – a ‘creole’ – arose over time as successive generations learned some French, then approximations of that French, then approximations of those approximations, and so on.

However, the precise dynamics of this process are still not clear. When Louisiana became part of the United States, Louisianians came under pressure to switch from French and Creole to English. Today, Louisiana Creole is critically endangered: it is spoken by fewer than approximately 5,000 people who are almost exclusively over the age of 60, and all of whom are bilingual in English. There is, however, a vibrant and growing community of enthusiasts and activists who are revitalizing the language. They are creating resources to learn the language but also fostering new communities of speakers.

The language can be seen as a living link transmitted from generation to generation. Its words and grammar are, for me, like a call never to forget the history of slavery and segregation, along with the enduring richness of Louisiana’s Creole identity, culture, music, food, voodoo and spiritual traditions. It’s a story which must be told and kept alive, which is exactly what the revitalization movement has been doing. With this new generation of speakers, proud of the language they know as ‘Kouri Vini’, the language is reawakening.

A waterway in Louisiana. Photo: Oliver Mayeux

How and why did you become interested in the language?

As a child, I occasionally heard stories about French and Creole being spoken on my father’s side of the family in Louisiana. I grew up mostly in Scotland and Nigeria, something which contributed to me being fascinated by languages from a young age and my desire to study linguistics. The connection came around the age of 17, when I started my undergraduate at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London. I loved exploring the library and, one day, I stumbled across the two major studies of Louisiana Creole. Around the same time, I found the online revitalization community. I soon became completely fascinated and, ten years later, I still am.

What’s unique about the new app?

Woolaroo is a new open-source tool developed by Google which allows users to explore indigenous, minority and endangered languages. Using image recognition technology, the app can recognise common objects and name them in 10 endangered languages, including Louisiana Creole. I worked together on the Louisiana Creole implementation with two friends from the revitalization movement, Jonathan Mayers and Adrien Guillory-Chatman. For me, the most exciting part of the app is that new words, translations and recordings can be added by anyone. If someone’s grandparents or people in their community speak Louisiana Creole – even a couple of words – they can join in. My hope is that it can be a fun way for families and communities to come together, learn more about the language and become interested in preserving its richness for future generations.

 

Woolaroo features 10 endangered languages. Photo: Google

What are you working on right now?

The main thrust of my research seeks to uncover how new languages are born, change over time, and die. I have been thinking a lot about the earliest stages of Louisiana Creole’s life and whether what we know of the language’s genesis squares with the theoretical literature and historical accounts from similar contexts. This has led me, most unexpectedly, to examine data from a French-based pidgin which developed Vietnam under French colonization. I’m also working on a project to develop tools to computationally process Louisiana Creole texts, something which will be useful for research and revitalization. In the long-term, these tools will form the basis for an open-source, open-access, online repository of texts in the language. Finally, a friend and I are editing a volume of poetry written in Louisiana Creole by learners of the language. One reason I enjoy my research so much is that it is incredibly varied.

What does the Junior Research Fellowship mean to you?

For me, at least, it’s sort of the academic equivalent of winning the lottery and a year later it still hasn’t quite sunk in. I feel very fortunate and grateful for the support I received, excited for the work and ideas I now have the opportunity to develop. It also comes with a sense of responsibility: this is a critical period for the language and its community and I have a chance to make a real difference through my work at Trinity.


Dr Mayeux’s research and contribution to Woolaroo has featured in The Louisiana Weekly. 

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