“Kyoo!” – Studying Cajun English
July 22, 2022
Linguistic research published in the journal, “American Speech”
BATON ROUGE – There is a substantial variety of English dialects spoken in Louisiana, including Southern White American English, African American English, Cajun English, Creole African American English, and New Orleans English or “Yat.” Eunice native Lauren Vidrine, a 2019 LSU graduate, heard her family members speak both Cajun French and Cajun English. As a teenager, she noticed one particular word that would lead her on a personal and educational research journey years later while at LSU.
“The word kyoo was actually one of the first notable aspects of Cajun English I ever remember noticing when I was 14 years old, since that was when I began encountering more people at school who weren't from Louisiana, and they were unfamiliar with the word. I then had a conversation with my mom about the word around that time too, and we discussed what we felt it meant and how it could possibly be written,” Vidrine said. “As a college student, I transferred to LSU from LSU-Eunice with the intent to get involved with linguistics in whatever ways I could, specifically interested in investigating my native dialect Cajun English.”
Vidrine also noticed the word being used on social media while in college, as well. She shared these examples of what she suspected was the interjection to LSU linguistics professor Irina Shport, who said that before the prominence of social media, the word was rarely even seen in writing.
“My mom and I were members of the Facebook group Cajun Meme Factory, or CMF, prior to the project's inception, primarily as viewers. I was attracted to this page not only for cultural and comical content, but also because I realized much of what was posted within the group was essentially a mini digital corpus of Cajun English,” Vidrine said. “This group offered me accessible and diverse examples of Cajun English features, including the use of kyoo.”
Vidrine, with Shport’s guidance, dug deeper into kyoo by conducting linguistic and acoustic analyses. She held recorded interviews with native Cajun English speakers in her hometown of Eunice, which were used as data to analyze the interjection.
“I am well aware Cajun English is an under-documented dialect within linguistic literature, and I had hopes to find ways to fill in this gap not only for academic reasons but also to represent my culture and heritage,” Vidrine said.
She also investigated whether and why kyoo sounded odd to native English speakers.
“Kyoo typically expresses a person’s surprise. Some describe it as having the same meaning as ‘wow’ in mainstream English. Its origin is unknown. We chose to investigate this interjection for two reasons. First is that it signals white Cajun identity in speech, and it is very prominent. Second is that anecdotally, Cajuns and non-Cajuns alike comment that it sounds ‘weird,’ as if the word is ‘not English.’ So, we wanted to investigate whether this perception is grounded in French influence in the formerly bilingual Cajun community,” Shport said.
They discovered that non-mainstream Cajun English expressions such as kyoo are perceived as 'odd, sounding Frenchy and foreign' by both non-Cajuns and Cajuns, even though there is nothing French-like in their pronunciation according to detailed acoustic analyses of kyoo's sounds.
“This perceived oddness may conveniently be blamed on French influence, whether this influence is linguistically traceable in current pronunciations or not. Francophone heritage, traditional Cajun way of life, and persistent characterizations of Cajuns as lacking education or being ignorant may be extended to kyoo to cause an overall perception of the word being 'odd or different' from the norm. Interestingly, Black speakers of Louisiana do not seem to use this interjection of surprise, suggesting the word is an identity marker for white francophone heritage speakers specifically,” Shport said.
Their paper was accepted for publication in “American Speech,” one of the flagship linguistics journals for research on United States languages and dialects. Vidrine’s research is the first known description of the word in academic writing.
“This research project on kyoo, as well as the other projects I did, gave me both academic and personal experiences that were rewarding in a multitude of ways. I was able to gain valuable knowledge of research methodology processes within subsects of linguistics and anthropology, attend and participate in various conferences, make a few professional connections, and better understand the working structure of academia,” Vidrine said. “On the personal side, this research on my own native dialect provided me with a level of esteem towards my and my family's heritage that I had never had prior. I spent the majority of my child and young adult years trying to disconnect from my Cajunness, due to the stigma that surrounded Cajun identity as being simple, uneducated and aggressive. Through this project and the opportunities LSU awarded me because of it, I was able to realize that Cajun identity, including its dialect, is as equal as all others.”
Shport said that feeling of being disconnected or even embarrassed of one’s own cultural identity is felt by some of her students. But like Vidrine, many students found that the research helps them connect to their roots.
“I hope that this experience teaches my students to appreciate linguistic diversity and speakers of different Louisiana languages. If students have a linguistic insecurity, I hope that studying of languages helps them to see value in their own home dialect or language regardless of how different it is from Mainstream American English,” Shport said. “Unfortunately, too many students that I have encountered had this linguistic insecurity, feeling that their home dialect is looked down upon because it sounds ‘uneducated, incorrect, less.’ Any linguist will tell you it is a complete nonsense, all dialects are created equal in how expressive, logical, grammatical they are. They are unique languages of unique communities, something to cherish and preserve rather than to be shy of. Being bidialectal or bilingual is a superpower! Add to your linguistic repertoire, don’t subtract from it.”