Joe Citizen and Richard LeBouef, speak fluent French to a small group of listeners at the monthly La Table Francaise meetings held at Le Vieux Village and open free to the public in Opelousas.
Photo by Freddie Herpin
Walk into the two-room former Whiteville school house at Le Vieux Village once every month and you will likely encounter along with coffee and doughnuts, an informal series of animated conversations conducted primarily in localized French.
It doesn’t matter says Wil Fontenot, how well you speak or understand the various Cajun dialects. Just show up. Chances are you will leave entertained, says the Eunice-area native..
The hourly La Table Francaise discourses sponsored by the City of Opelousas and held at the school on the last Wednesday of each month are for everyone to enjoy, Fontenot explains.
“We want to teach the language as well as speak it in order to preserve it,” says Fontenot, who has become the acknowledged leader of the French small conversation groups which individually sit in student desks and discuss their own experiences in the language admire.
On Wednesday six people formed a semicircle and used a sheet of French words that triggered an hour-long series of word associations, phrases, conversations and remembrances that often resulted in laughter as well as explanations.
“We use the words to create stories that relate to the words on the list and that can bring a lot of discussion about how maybe someone remembers it being used to mean something different,” Fontenot adds.
Using a word list printed out and obtained from a LSU website dedicated to the Creole culture, Fontenot says it has been interesting to learn how the same French words can have different meanings when spoken just a few miles apart.
Joyce Matherne told the group that some of the words discussed were perhaps derived from what she called, “down the bayou French.”
She said often French words in St. Landry and adjoining parishes are also pronounced atypically based on the locale.
“We tend to speak where we are from,” Fontenot told his listeners.
Matherne also recalled a trip to Paris where she spoke her local French in the stores there.
“The people there who spoke the Parisian French were able to understand me. I was told before I left that the people there could be rude, but they were very polite when I spoke to them,” she added.
One word whose nuances intrigued the group was the French word, “beau-frere.” The dictionary entry said the hyphenated word mean s either step-brother or brother-in-law, but some of the indigenous French speakers in the group had never heard of the word expressed in that way.
The group was also somewhat amused about the French word, bete, which could have several meanings that included an animal, a cow or someone considered stupid or silly.
Joe Citizen, a longtime zydeco musician who has lived in the Mallet and Frilot Cove areas west of Lawtell, remembers that discerning the meaning of certain Cajun and Creole words isn’t always easy
“Where I grew up around Mallet, the area was half Cajun, half French and half Creole. The language spoken there seemed always mixed up. You could leave and go to Leonville and speak the same language and not understand each other,” Citizen said.