We think of Lafcadio Hearn in connection with Japan, where he spent the last years of his life and wrote his most famous books (notably Kwaidan), but he lived for a dozen years in New Orleans; the Wikipedia entry on him says (as of today):

In the autumn of 1877, Hearn left Cincinnati for New Orleans, Louisiana, where he initially wrote dispatches on his discoveries in the “Gateway to the Tropics” for the Cincinnati Commercial. He lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade, writing first for the Daily City Item and later for the Times Democrat. The vast number of his writings about New Orleans and its environs, many of which have not been collected, include the city’s Creole population and distinctive cuisine, the French Opera, and Voudou. His writings for national publications, such as Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine, helped mold the popular image of New Orleans as a colorful place with a distinct culture more akin to Europe and the Caribbean than to the rest of North America. His best-known Louisiana works are Gombo Zhèbes, Little Dictionary of Creole Proverbs in Six Dialects (1885); La Cuisine Créole (1885), a collection of culinary recipes from leading chefs and noted Creole housewives who helped make New Orleans famous for its cuisine; and Chita: A Memory of Last Island, a novella based on the hurricane of 1856 first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1888.

A correspondent (thanks, tellurian!) sent me a link to the Internet Archive page for the first-named book, whose full title is “Gombo zhèbes.” Little dictionary of Creole proverbs, selected from six Creole dialects. Translated into French and into English, with notes, complete index to subjects and some brief remarks upon the Creole idioms of Lousiana; it’s fun to look through, though the racist language of the time is cringe-inducing. (I assume he chose to write zhèbes rather than zèb to reproduce part of the French word herbes, but zh is clearly to be pronounced as simple /z/, since the phrase represents gombo aux herbes /gomboozerb/. I am informed by a commenter that zh may actually represent what it appears to, the sound of j in leisure.) The orthographical principles he used are discussed here; unfortunately, the txt file is chock full of scanning errors, but the correct readings are found in the other formats—I’ve corrected the beginning of the introduction, reproduced below, from the pdf:

Any one who has ever paid a flying visit to New Orleans probably knows something about those various culinary preparations whose generic name is “Gombo” —compounded of many odds and ends, with the okra-plant, or true gombo for a basis, but also comprising occasionally “losé, zepinard, laitie,” and the other vegetables sold in bunches in the French market. At all events any person who has remained in the city for a season must have become familiar with the nature of “gombo filé,” “gombo févi,” and “gombo aux herbes,” or as our colored cook calls it, “gombo zhèbes["]—for she belongs to the older generation of Creole cuisinières, and speaks the patois in its primitive purity, without using a single “r.” Her daughter, who has been to school, would pronounce it gombo zhairbes:—the modern patois is becoming more and more Frenchified, and will soon be altogether forgotten, not only throughout Louisiana, but even in the Antilles. It still, however, retains originality enough to be understood with difficulty by persons thoroughly familiar with French; and even those who know nothing of any language but English, readily recognize it by the peculiarly rapid syllabification and musical intonation. Such English-speaking residents of New Orleans seldom speak of it as “Creole”: they call it gombo, for some mysterious reason which I have never been able to explain satisfactorily. The colored Creoles of the city have themselves begun to use the term to characterize the patois spoken by the survivors of slavery days. Turiault tells us that in the towns of Martinique, where the Creole is gradually changing into French, the Bitacos, or country negroes who still speak the patois nearly pure, are much ridiculed by their municipal brethren: Ça ou ka palé là, chè, c’est nèg:—Ça pas Créole! [(]“What you talk is ‘nigyp.r’, my dear: that isn’t Creole!”) In like manner a young Creole negro or negress of New Orleans might tell an aged member of his race: “Ça qui to parlé ça pas Créole: ça c’est gombo!” I have sometimes heard the pure and primitive Creole also called “Congo” by colored folks of the new generation.
The literature of “gombo” has perhaps even more varieties than there are preparations of the esculents above referred to;—the patois has certainly its gombo févi, its gom[b]o filé, its “gombo zhèbes”—both written and unwritten. A work like Marbot’s “Bambous” would deserve to be classed with the pure “févi”;—the treatises of Turiault, Baissac, St. Quentin, Thomas, rather resemble that fully prepared dish, in which crabs seem to struggle with fragments of many well-stewed meats, all strongly seasoned with pepper. The present essay at Creole folklore, can only be classed as “gombo zhèbes”—(Zhèbes çé feuil-chou, cresson, laitie, bettrav, losé, zepinard); the true okra is not the basis of our preparation;—it is a Creole dish, if you please, but a salmagundi of inferior quality.

(I left one word in its scan-garbled form, but it should be easily deciphered.) I should add that my correspondent got the link from this interesting thread at Undercover Black Man.


  1. Hearn was also widely quoted as an authority on the origins of the word “jazz”. From Walter Kingsley’s “Whence Comes Jass? Facts from the Great Authority on the Subject” (New York Sun, Aug. 5, 1917):

    In his studies of the Creole patois and idiom in New Orleans, Lafcadio Hearn reported that the word ‘Jaz,’ meaning to speed things up, to make excitement, was common among the blacks of the south, and had been adopted by the Creoles as a term to be applied to music of a rudumentary syncopated type. In the old plantation days when the slaves were having one of their holidays and the fun languished, some west coast African would cry out, ‘Jas her up,’ and this would be the cue for fun, fast and furious.

    But no one has ever found a direct reference to “jaz(z)” in Gombo Zhèbes or in any other work by Hearn, so Kingsley’s remark remains a bit of a mystery.

  2. One more fun tidbit from Lafcadio: Michael Quinion cites his usage of the word “baragouin” meaning ‘language so altered as to be unintelligible’:

    He had scarcely acquired some idea of the language of his first masters, when other rulers and another tongue were thrust upon him,—and this may have occurred three or four times! The result is a totally incoherent agglomeration of speech-forms—a baragouin fantastic and unintelligible beyond the power of anyone to imagine who has not heard it. (Two Years in the French West Indies, 1890).

  3. Therese says:

    In New Orleans, we would certainly (now) say “zerbes”, but in the small, Creole and Cajun-speaking River Parish town where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence, it was more of “jerbes” or “jebes”. How interesting to see this passage and be reminded of it.
    Also, being a New Orleanian, I’ve always thought of Hearn (much like others, especially Faulkner) as being connected to New Orleans, not Japan (or Mississippi). His words always come to me when I think of home, especially now:
    “Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes, than to own the whole state of Ohio.”

  4. in the small, Creole and Cajun-speaking River Parish town where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence, it was more of “jerbes” or “jebes”
    See, it never pays to assume. Thanks very much for your informative and moving comment!

  5. Why didn’t he write “jèbes” rather than “zhèbes”?

  6. marie-lucie says:

    - because English speakers would think that the word started with the same sound as “John”.

  7. But he’s using French orthography everywhere else. Those English speakers you’re talking about aren’t going to pronounce the “èbes” part correctly, and people who know how to pronounce the “èbes” are, like LH, going to be confused by the “zh”.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    It is possible that the initial sound noted zh by Lafcadio Hearn in zhèbes was neither exactly like the sound of the s in leisure or pleasure, nor exactly like the sound of z in zebra, but something in between, even if more recent speakers such as Thérèse may use a more Standard French j in jèbes as in jour.
    There is often a certain amount of lip-rounding (or pursing) in pronouncing the sounds written in French ch and j. If this lip-rounding is eliminated, and instead speakers keep their lips widely spread towards their cheeks, this greatly diminishes the vertical mouth space available for the motion of the tongue, and it also minimizes or even obliterates the sound difference between ch and s, and between j and z, so aux herbes /ozerb/ could have become /(o)zherb/ instead. I am not personally familiar with Creole of any description but I have often read comments such as “prononciation zézayante” which must describe this lack of distinction between j and z, giving a superficial impression that all j‘s are pronounced as z.
    As another example, in the Japanese word written in English sushi, the s and especially the sh are not quite like the English sounds written that way, but intermediate between the two – and Japanese is normally spoken with lips spread, as rounding the lips is considered uncouth (so my Japanese rommate told me years ago). .

  9. Indeed that seems to be the case. Both standard French (or Quebecois-accented) teachers through CODOFIL and the influence of Cajun on Creole has lead to a more standard-style “j” pronunciation in at least myself and a cousin of approximately the same age (25-30) whom I called for confirmation. I can only think of it for that word, however — “haricots” sounds like “zaricots” and there’s a definite difference in the sound (the lips do remain in almost the same position — quite spread — but the tongue of course does not). I’d have to chat further with my cousins to try to think of more examples. A difficult question now that I’m no longer immersed in any French. :)

Speak Your Mind