Researchers race to save Missouri French, the dialect now spoken by just 30 people

Once widely spoken across Illinois Country, one of the major forms of French to originate in the US will soon be extinct

History researchers are racing to save Missouri French, the dialect spoken fluently by less than 30 people in old mining towns, before the few remaining native speakers succumb to old age.

Missouri French, an amalgam of Old Norman French, Native American languages and frontier English, is spoken in Old Mines, southwest of St. Louis, and is one of the three major forms of French to originate in the United States, remaining widely in use well into the 20 century.

Missouri French speakers are descendants of early French settlers in the upper Mississippi River County, formally known as Illinois Country, over 300 years ago.

The dialect, also called Missouri-Illinois French or paw-paw French for the region's plentiful paw-paw fruit trees, flourished in isolated communities such as Old Mines and was used by hundreds of families for generations.

In the 1980s the paw-paw French was spoken by hundreds of people, according to GeoCurrents, but most of these speakers were middle aged or elderly residents, who would now be aged at least 75-years-old.

The dialect was widely associated with being ignorant or uneducated, meaning only phrases and songs have been passed down in recent generations, who instead spoke English.

"When they didn't want us to know what they talked about, they talked to us in French," said Lucy Baquette, whose husband traces his regional roots back to the founding families of St. Louis.

Examples of Missouri French

  • Cars – Chars
  • Cold – fraitte
  • Party – bouillons
  • It rains - ça fait mouier

The last academic study of the dialect is understood to have been written 75 years ago, creating a huge written gap in knowledge.

Dennis Stroughmatt has been working to help preserve the language, after discovering it as a student at the Southeast Missouri State University 20 years ago.

Having studied French for a term, he befriended families in and around Old Mines in an effort to preserve the region's music and language. The area’s unofficial slogan is “On est toujours icitte”, or "we are still here."

“They have fought to keep their language and culture alive," Mr Stroughmatt said. "I want to do anything I can to help.”

He has since recorded oral histories, uncovered wax cylinder recordings and immersed himself in their traditional language, music and stories.

Mr Stroughmatt plays fiddle in his three-piece band, Dennis Stroughmatt et L’esprit Creole, which aims to “carry the torch of this enduring culture” by performing at different folk festivals across America.

His work was honoured in May by the Missouri Humanities Council for seeking to "revive an epoch of Midwestern history that was on the verge of extinction." He was one of five to win the Missouri Humanities Award for Preserving Traditional French Culture and Music of Old Mines, which was hailed as an "exemplary community achievement".

Carol Diaz-Granados, an anthropology researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who studies the region's Native American archaeology, commended Mr Stroughmatt's historical preservation efforts.

Missouri French "was on the verge of being lost," she said. "People are passing away. It's the end of an era."

The Old Mines Area Historical Society, the volunteer-run group which Ms Diaz-Granados is a board member of, is now working to restore an old log cabin on the outskirts of town that would serve as the centrepiece of a 19th century village and history museum commemorating the region's deep French roots.

The region also stages an annual Old Mines Missouri French festival to celebrate its linguistic origins.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy