First to come, last to go: Phonological change and resilience in Louisiana Regional French
This diachronic study tracks Louisiana French syllable structure and sound patterns over several decades, offering an in-depth, quantitative evaluation of language death and hybridization. Most scholarly inquiry involving this severely endangered language has revolved around morphosyntactic issues. The present work instead considers how a century of contact with English may be influencing Louisiana French phonology. Recordings made in 1977 and 2010 provide speech data from 19 male and 17 female native speakers born between 1888 and 1953. All speakers come from the same town, and none read or write in French. The study evaluates 260 minutes of phonemically transcribed speech, comprising over 70,000 sound segments. The quantitative analysis shows that sociolinguistic variables (age, sex, timeperiod, community identity) still account for variation in pronunciation patterns, and complex, marked segments such as front rounded vowels are not dying out in favor of segments common to both French and English. However, diachronic consonant cluster trends appear to mirror language acquisition patterns. The Optimality Theory analysis takes on questions of phonological hybridity, scrutinizing the behavior of Louisiana French phonemic and phonetic nasal vowels, along with liaison, to understand how French- and English-based processes come together. The analysis highlights the opposing forces of phonetic and phonemic vowel nasality, experiencing challenges precisely where these systems come into conflict. In order to capture the attested surface variation, the formal analysis develops a method of assigning first () and second () place to output candidates. The study concludes that Louisiana French phonology has stayed remarkably resilient over time, and that a first- and second-place evaluation method allows Optimality Theory to better reflect actual language patterns. It underscores the hybrid and complex nature of Louisiana French, which instead of moving to a simplified system of vowel nasality, contains and works to harmonize both phonetic and phonemic nasal vowel patterns. The 2010 interviews and transcriptions also represent the first available Louisiana research point in the international Phonology of Contemporary French project (Phonologie du Français Contemporain, PFC). This diachronic investigation of language death thus makes a substantial contribution to the understanding of language contact and variation.