by Nathanael C. Alire
Many are not aware of the French descendants residing in what is now Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana in a region historically referred to as “Le Pays des Illinois” (The Illinois Country) or “Haute Louisiane” (Upper Louisiana). Historic French settlements such as Saint Louis, MO; Ste. Genevieve, MO; Prairie du Rocher, IL; Kaskaskia, IL; and Vincennes, IN are amongst the most well-known towns celebrated through their local French heritage and distinct culture and traditions.
It is easy to visit Ste. Genevieve and get lost in time whilst walking the streets; bearing sight on the old French Creole homes of unique colonial design. One may feel the energy of battle outside of Prairie du Rocher where the popular Fort des Chartres lies, open to the public and the host of many festivals and historic reenactments from a nearly-forgotten time. Fireworks flare over the Liberty Bell of the West on Independence Day at Kaskaskia, which by the way, is older than the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Old Churches and Creole homes throughout the settlements remind one of a simpler time prior to the Louisiana Purchase — when French was the dominant language of the land and thousands of settlers flocked here to search for and create a better life.
Those settlers are now long gone. They are survived by their music, folklore, and cuisine which still is practiced throughout the region. On the right day, one may hear old fiddle tunes, hundreds of years old, being played while many dance, celebrating old traditions such as La Guillannée. Nowhere in the old Illinois Country will one still hear the French language still spoken, except for the tiny rural village of La Vieille Mine; otherwise known as Old Mines, Missouri. Old Mines is the last place where the French language has survived in this region. Located 60 miles due west of Ste. Genevieve in the Ozark Mountains, the speech of the elders is a French sub-dialect with a pronunciation reminding francophones of a rural Québécois accent combined with a vocabulary one may see fit for the Bayous of Louisiana.
The locals call it Paw-Paw French. Amongst the elders, nobody is quite sure how many people still speak the old language, since English language assimilation was made prominent in the region as it was in Louisiana, Maine, and Michigan; leaving those who do speak the language ashamed and unwilling to admit fluency or nativity. There are anywhere around 10 to 50 native speakers left, some believe less. Although not many are fluent, many of the locals there in Old Mines and surrounding towns like De Soto and Potosi can recall phrases, words, and songs taught to them by late family members of whom they survive. At a local bar, one may easily still hear the language spoken by those unaware of the fact. Just as local historian and Paw-Paw French speaker Kent Beaulne (dit Bone) once told me, “Once the people get to drinkin’, the people get to speakin’!” Basic conversations in the old language are not uncommon.
Lately, it seems like many in the former Illinois Country have begun to remember their lineage, thus commencing to seek information on Paw-Paw French. There has been much interest in learning the sub-dialect, mostly from historical reenactors from the region to perfect their roles, from historians and language lovers alike, as well as from a younger generation of college and high school students eager to carry on the oral tradition. With classes being established in Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis and the occasional attention of the media, perhaps Paw-Paw French is not taking its final breath, but rather is simply skipping a beat and looking toward a new generation of new speakers willing to carry the flame from a nearly burnt-out torch. Just as the Paw-Paw saying goes, “300 ans, On est Toujours Icitte!”
Nathanael C. Alire is a student of linguistics and a teacher at Illinois Country French Preservation Inc.