Jim Bradshaw: When Louisiana goes eaux-verboard
Finally, an ally. On the misuse of “geaux.”
Baton Rouge Advocate columnist Christina Stephens has said “enough, already.” She says there is now “an addiction” to “overuse (or eauxveruse, if you will) … of 'eaux' as a substitution for any ‘oh’ sound in a normal word.” She suggests that the substitution may have been cute at first, but that “it loses all cleverness” when we substitute eaux for “practically every word with an ‘oh’ sound” in our vocabulary.
I am tempted to cheer, “Geaux, Christina” But I won’t. Not only do I agree with her that “eaux” has been overused to the point of silliness, I have argued for years that it has been misused from the beginning.
I argue that, as much as we would like it to, and as wonderfully “Cajun” as it may seem, “geaux” is not properly pronounced “go.”
OK, “eaux” can be pronounced “oh,” I’ll agree to that. But I argue that the “g” in geaux is not a “hard” g, as the language teachers used to explain to us. It’s soft. If geaux were actually a word, which it is not, the proper way to say it would be “jhoe,” not “go.”
Think, for example, of the local family name of Domengeaux. The g has a soft pronunciation. The name is not pronounced Dough-man-go; it is Dough-man-jhoe. Simply pulling the geaux from the end of the name does not change the way it’s pronounced.
If you want a Gallic spelling that sounds like “go,” try “gau,” as in Gaudet, Gautreaux, Gaudin, etc. That would be the easiest way to fix all those signs, banners, and cutesy web sites. We could just block out the “e” in geaux and turn it into gaux. We can even leave the silent little “x.”
The whole thing reminds me of the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the word “fish” should properly be spelled “ghoti.” That’s pronouncing the gh with an f sound, as in tough; the “o” with an “i” sound, as in women; and the ti with an “sh” sound, as in attention.
Of course, this is south Louisiana and we’ve got so many languages and dialects it’s a wonder that any word is pronounced the same way twice.
I’ve always wondered, for example, why the name of the city is most often pronounced New Awlins, but the parish name is invariably pronounced Or-LEANS. And why is a split road forked, but the island is For-ked?
And there will always be an argument over whether the proper pronunciation for the parish is LAUGH-ayette or LAH-fayette.
Don’t accuse me of not taking a stance on this one. I say both are right and both are wrong. It depends.
The town and parish were named in honor of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. When the name is pronounced the way he wrote it, with the La and the Fa separated, we tend toward the French pronunciation, “lah,” because La and Fa are two distinct syllables. Then it is Lah-Fah-Yet.
But once you take away the space between La and Fa and make it Lafayette, the sound changes as the syllable structure changes. Now the word has become Anglicized into Laf-a-yette, and we get the “laugh” pronunciation.
Then, once we’ve worked out the laugh-lah business, we still have to worry about the “fa.” It’s sometimes pronounced as “fye,” rhyming with “pie,” and sometimes with the “fah” sound. So we get the varied pronunciations of Laugh-fah-yet, Laugh-fye-yet, Lah-fah-yet, and Lah-fye-ette. Don’t worry over it; just pick one. Or, if you’re talking to some visitors from the North, use two different pronunciations in the same sentence, just to confuse them.
If you want a real challenge, try to explain to those same foreigners how to pronounce courtbouillon or to give them directions to Paincourtville.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.