Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

The Continuing Decline of Isleno Spanish in Louisiana

Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

The Continuing Decline of Isleno Spanish in Louisiana

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Isleno Spanish, the dialect of Canary Island descendants living in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, is in attrition after more than 100 years of isolation. The dialect is of interest in the study of the processes of language death because of the accessible information from earlier research and the availability of speakers at all proficiency levels. Interviews with enclave members suggest language variation beyond reports of investigations made less than a decade ago. Language characteristics previously exclusive to semi-speakers are now found in the speech of bilinguals. The effects of decreased dialect usage are evident in comparisons of the speech patterns of bilinguals, semi-speakers, and rememberers. The attitudes of the youngest Islenos reveal a lack of identification with the Isleno enclave and an unawareness of Isleno terminology as an entity distinct from English. The desire of the oldest Islenos to preserve the culture has led to the use of English so as to include younger enclave members. This well-intentioned use of English has inadvertently resulted in further language attrition. *

INTRODUCTION. In order to secure its control of the area in the late eighteenth century, the Spanish Crown encouraged inhabitants of the Canary Islands to immigrate to Louisiana and colonize. Settlements were established, but most soon dissipated or were absorbed by the neighboring populations. However, the settlement in St. Bernard Parish, centered in the community of Delacroix Island, remained relatively isolated until the early twentieth century. Delacroix is not an island as its name indicates, but rather an area surrounded by bayous and, in earlier times, isolated by lack of roads. Before the 1920's, the settlers and their descendants, without the benefit of formal education of any kind, maintained the Spanish language from the Canary Islands and adapted it to the needs of their new environment. The isolation of the Islenos, coupled with the necessity of protecting their territory and trapping rights, added to their close-knit social structure and their wariness of outsiders. In the early twentieth century, better roads were built and public education, sporadic at first, entered the remote home of the Islenos. It was then that English was formally introduced and the decline of the Isleno dialect began. Storm and flood damage in the community and job opportunities in neighboring areas have resulted in a dilution of the population and have endangered the viability of this dialect.

Studies in language death have expanded over the past 30 years in response to the growing awareness of the ever-increasing numbers of languages facing extinction in a more global society. The ultimate death of a language occurs when its last speaker dies, but its process can have many stages, and its causes and circumstances may differ (Crystal 2000, Denison 1977, Dorian 1973, 1981, 1982, 1986, 1989, Wurm 1991). The definition of language attrition given by Holloway (1997:28), `a slow process in which native speakers of one language gradually give up use of their language in favor of another', aptly describes the circumstances of Isleno Spanish. Its decline has resulted from both the encroachment of English and the expansion of the community into the surrounding monolingual English-speaking areas. In a sense, the use of Isleno Spanish has become a novelty among the enclave members. It is used infrequently and by purposeful choice among persons who could converse just as easily, or more easily, in English. Although Isleno Spanish is still spoken by some, the dialect is not being passed to younger generations, and, as such, is classified as moribund (Krauss 1992:4). (1) In recent years linguists have been studying declining languages to identify characteristics of the process of obsolescence (cf. Hoenigswald 1989, Campbell & Muntzel 1989). The purpose herein is to add to the evidence of language change in declining languages through comparison of earlier descriptions of Isleno Spanish with present-day use by speakers of varying ability to communicate in the dialect. …

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