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The Louisiana Bishop’s Mailbox: a French language epistolary collection from 1831 to 1859

Project coordinator: Sylvie DUBOIS

Total costs of the project: $27.000
Embassy of France support: $6.000

Summary of the Project

As the language of a migratory people, French spread across North America into communities whose geopolitical borders would change repeatedly between the arrival of French speakers in North America in the seventeenth century and now.

Louisiana is one of these communities that still bear strong traces of the French language despite continuing external social and political pressures throughout its history to become Anglophone. The history of the French language in Louisiana is well-documented but by no means fully understood. Although the common assumption is that the French language was doomed from the early nineteenth century because of Americanization and the flow of Anglophone immigrants to the state, recent studies have shown that that stable bilingualism was an ordinary aspect of Louisiana's life during the period between the Louisiana Purchase and Reconstruction. They also revealed that in the nineteenth century when the French language was becoming a social liability rather than an asset, the Louisiana Catholic Church stood as the last vestige of French cultural dominance and the last prestigious stronghold for the written French language in Louisiana. The Louisiana Catholic Church has one of the largest holdings of written material in North America, and a significant portion of the earlier material is written in French. Despite this archival collection's advantages (documents showing a level of continuity, covering a wide time span, and involving a large geographic area), very little has been studied about the role of the church in language change, in part because of the virtual inaccessibility and poor availability of these archives.

To tackle the complexity of the language issues in nineteenth-century Louisiana, the Center for French and Francophone Studies (CFFS) director gathered rare approvals from local Catholic Church officials to access the Archdiocese of New Orleans' extensive archive collections and began documenting the language shift from French to English in the Louisiana Catholic Church, placing its patterns of language maintenance and change within the social history of Louisiana.