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Friday, September 27, 2013

Sidney Bristol on Cajun Country

Bonjour mes amis!

Come with me down the bayou to the crescent city where we’ll listen to the caimons sing and eat beignets with a cup of joe.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop pretending like I can speak Cajun or know what an alligator sounds like without playing an MP3. These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of Swamp People, Gator Boys and an endless search for the right turn of phrase for a Creole woman to use when speaking to her lover. Yes, I’m in full on research mode!

Spend any time around authors and you’ll hear us talk about the crazy things we do to research a single line in a book. One of my absolute favorite things about writing a culture that has its own language or dialect is learning it. I used to do a lot of traveling for humanitarian work around the world. There was little to no time to learn the language except for important phrases like, thank you or where is the bathroom. So I would let the locals teach me, immersing myself in their lives and getting the sink or swim treatment. And let me tell you, I learned to swim as fast as possible! I’m a horribly picky eater, so it was really important to learn how to order food properly.

One of the most unique language learning experiences I had was in Thailand. Our group visited a school for the blind, and they did not communicate the same way as the other Thai people we’d met. We had no idea we were attending the school, the opportunity literally cropped up about half an hour before, and we went with it. Where most people used words, these children used their hands to see and communicate a lot of the time. Above you can see me with one little girl and she has her finger tapping my knuckle. It’s her way of saying, hello.

I try to take this same approach when writing. I learn what phrases and words I can and ask for help with the rest. One of the most valuable phrases I ever learn in a new language is, “What is it?” Which thankfully people than interpret as, I want to know the word so I can say it. I to this day will point at things and ask, “What is it?” in Russian.

Recently I was asked to be part of a multi-author boxed of original stories set to release in November/December. The location is New Orleans and themed around tattoos and the New Year. I was so excited! I was just in New Orleans last year and I’ve been kicking around the idea of going back just for the fun of it. Besides, I might be a fan of Gambit from the X-Men and I’ve always imagined him with a delicious Cajun drawl and the idea of writing a character with that sort of speech pattern fascinated me.

You see, the language is one of the reasons I was so excited about this project. The local culture around New Orleans, and really the whole region, has really developed its own language, a fusion of English, French, Native American and straight up slang. The jargon doesn’t follow all the rules of the root languages, so it’s been complicated and a heck of a lot of fun to comb through Cajun dictionaries and language guides to figure out what my characters should say! I’ve even resorted to watching Swamp People to pick out cadence and slang.

So what are some words or phrases I’ve been using?

A bon couer – To do something wholeheartedly.
Alohrs pas – Of course not.
Bebette – A little monster or critter.
Cunja – A spell put on someone.
Dit mon la verite’ – Tell me the truth.
Gris-gris – An object used to ward off or inflict evil.
Mais, jamais d’la vie! – Well, never in my life!
Pirogue – Small flat bottomed boat.
Qui C’est q’ca? – Who or what is that? ((MY FAVORITE PHRASE!!))

As you can see, the French roots run all through the Cajun dialect. The difficulty is that the Cajun usage doesn’t always follow French rules, and my grasp of French is rather pitiful.
I have a lot left to learn, but it’s a fun process that I completely enjoy. Maybe someday I’ll be able to use all the snippets of language I’ve learned!

How many languages do you speak? Is there a particular one you'd love to learn?

It can never be said that Sidney Bristol has had a ‘normal’ life.  She is a recovering roller derby queen, former missionary, and tattoo addict. She grew up in a motor-home on the US highways (with an occasional jaunt into Canada and Mexico), traveling the rodeo circuit with her parents. Sidney has lived abroad in both Russia and Thailand, working with children and teenagers. She now lives in Texas where she splits her time between a job she loves, writing, reading and belly dancing.


  1. Hi Sidney!

    Wow what a fascinating life you've led! I do not have a talent for languages. I took Spanish in school (I grew up in Texas and thought that was the most logical choice.) I know a few words and phrases, but nothing truly stuck.

    I am currently writing a Prussian character for a story set in 1816. So I've purchased Rosetta Stone German and am working my way through it. My boyfriend *is* also German, so it would be nice if some of my research would stick. As it is, what I hear now is, "Ack! You sound like an American." When I try out what I've learned, to which I reply, "I *am* an American." ;)

    I adore, love, cannot get enough of New Orleans. Your box set sounds great!

    1. Do you like the Rosetta Stone system? I've thought about getting it, but I haven't ever known anyone who has tried it.

    2. It's good. It's best when used with the online product, but subscription expired and one for a year is $200 and I'm cheap. If I had time to dedicate just to this, I would do it though.

    3. LOL! It always amuses me when speaking another language, I'm told I sound American. Well, speak English for me and we'll see what you sound like!!

      I live in Texas too, and I can't speak Spanish to save my life. I have tried and tried, but I have no knack for it. *sigh* Oh well!!

  2. I took French in high school and I still remember some words, but I stumbled across a French news station on satellite radio and I couldn't understand anything. It was way too fast. But I think there's an advantage to being able to see people when they are speaking because you can read body language and there's always pointing. :)

    Probably the most useful language to learn for my area of the country would be Hmong, but I don't see me learning it. Fortunately, we have interpreters so when I'm working with a Hmong patient, I have someone to help me communicate. I think it's funny when I ask a question and the patient and interpreter have this exchange that seems to go on and on then the interpreter says, "He said no." From what I understand, this has to do with how their language is used and how there's a bit of storytelling involved, but it always makes me smile.

    1. Yes! That's very true. I experienced that the most when I was in Russian. Their conjugation of words is so complex that your 3rd or 4th sentence might change the way the verbs are used in the 1st sentence. I'd often be left cooling my heels while the translator chatted with the other people, lol!

  3. I took four and a half years of French during Jr High and High School. While in those classes I found a pen pal living in Paris whom I've written to through out the years, and while my speech could use some help I can still read enough French to understand what is being said. When the opportunity arose to take a language in college I chose to study Spanish. I am by no means fluent, but I can carry a conversation and read it. I think the next language I would love to tackle would have to be Latin as it's the root of so many other languages.

    1. What's funny is that the first time I was in Russia was also at the peak of my Spanish speaking ability. Anyways, there was this other teenage Russian girl and as it turns out she was learning Spanish, so we would chat with each other--in Spanish! It was so funny to us. And just plain odd at times because of how our native languages lent us to different aspects of Spanish better than others.

    2. I found my French background somehow helped me when it came time to study Spanish. I knew some of the rules of the language without even trying.

    3. There is a lot of sharing between the romantic languages. I believe that's what they're called! I know that being able to pronounce in Spanish helped me when I went to France.

  4. I don't have a talent for languages (or many I just don't have the work ethic). I feel like I should--my father is great at languages! I speak some Spanish and learned German in high school. I used to know some Chinese and wish I hadn't let that go. It's going to be really hard to relearn, though relearning Chinese (including the writing) is on my long-term to-do list.