Banner website_back to school

French Dialects Fight for Survival in the United States

Integration and the law forced Francophones in the United States to abandon their language in the early 20th century, and language enthusiasts are now fighting for its survival. Paw Paw was a dialect spoken by the first French settlers to colonize the Midwest, and is being kept alive in classes taught by a young American linguist in Missouri. Other French dialects in Louisiana and Maine have also been threatened with extinction, but are refusing to go quietly.

The small town of Old Mines in the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri is home to the descendants of 17th-century French settlers. A sign near the Bar & Grill and the local church reads Bienvenue à La Vieille Mine. The town was once part of the former French Louisiana which stretched across Illinois, Missouri and Indiana, and today a handful of its inhabitants stand out from the Anglophone crowd with a certain phrasing and an exotic accent.

Paw Paw: a French dialect from Missouri

Francophone settlers travelled from Canada and Louisiana through the Mississippi Valley to finally arrive in Illinois, where they worked in the lead and coal mines some 300 years ago. But according to linguists and natives in the region, only around 30 people still speak Paw Paw fluently. Linguist Joseph-Médard Carrière identified 600 families who spoke Paw Paw on a daily basis in the 1920s, and a study showed there were still around 1,000 people who spoke it in the 1980s.

The disappearance of this dialect can be largely explained by the stigmatization of Francophone languages in the early 20th century. “Paw Paw was associated with ignorance and a lack of education, and people were gradually forbidden from speaking it”, says Joseph-Edward Price, Assistant Professor of French and Applied Linguistics at the Texas Tech University and a specialist of Francophone dialects. “At the time, students who spoke Paw Paw were rapped on the knuckles!”

Nevertheless, some are eager to revive the dialect, such as Nathanael Cruise Alire, 21, a linguistics student originally from Denver, Colorado. His passion for the Missouri French dialect led him to create the non-profit organization, Illinois Country French Preservation, with Brandon Curry, co-founder of the education and training services start-up Harvest Education. The duo began teaching the first Paw Paw classes last summer in Ste. Genevieve, a town in Missouri founded in the mid-1730s by French-Canadians.

“We had around 15 regular students spread across two weekly lessons, and the course lasted five weeks. The youngest student was 12 and the oldest was 93! We’re going to try to do the same thing next summer”, says Nathanael, who learned Paw Paw from Kent Bone, an Old Mines native. “I have no Francophone origins. My family has Hispanic roots and is originally from the north of New Mexico, but I have found a lot of cultural similarities between my people and the Old Mines natives.”

Rebuilding the dialect from the ground up is also the objective of historian and musician Dennis Stroughmatt. After growing up in Vincennes, Indiana, where he was introduced to French Creole and its musical folklore, he spent three years in Old Mines in the 1990s. He has since become an ambassador for the dialect through his songs. “I enjoy recounting old tales in French I first heard from a storyteller in Old Mines called Pete ‘Paco’ Boyer”, he says. “Without music, art and stories we risk losing our culture, and ultimately, our language.”

Acadian: French heritage in Maine

Other Francophone dialects have been gradually eroded by discrimination and illegalization throughout the years. Acadian was a dialect spoken in Maine by French settlers who arrived in 1600. The modern state of Maine was discovered by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in the early 17th century, and was part of French Acadia until the 1750s when it fell under English rule. The first Francophone influences were bolstered by the arrival of one million French-Canadian immigrants looking for a better life in the 19th century.

The upper valley of the Saint-Jean River in the north of the state is home to the highest number per capita of Francophone natives who speak Acadian in the United States. Some 84% of the 4,035 inhabitants of Madawaska still speak the French dialect according to a 2013 study. This is particularly impressive given that a law banned French in public schools from 1919 until the 1960s. The early 20th century also saw Francophones and Catholics in New England come under fierce attack from the Ku Klux Klan.

Joseph-Edward Price published a study on Maine’s American-Canadian community, and observed that a significant number of people now “prefer to speak English even when given the choice. When in Quebec, for example, they tend to feel embarrassed or are worried their French is not the ‘right’ French.”

The proximity of Acadian communities (including in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) to the Atlantic Ocean has lent the language a certain naval vocabulary. “Take a seat” in Acadian translates as hale une chaise, from the verb haler, “to tow”. Several structures are in place to document and promote Acadian, such as a team at the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine which studies the Franco-American landscape in Maine and across the United States. The objective is to foster the education of French in schools and universities, despite the current budget cuts.

The University of Maine recently removed French classes from its program due to insufficient numbers of students, but other initiatives have been put forward. The Ecole Française du Maine in South Freeport offers immersive courses in French for Franco-American families, and the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston showcases Francophone art and culture.

French in Louisiana

Moving to the other side of the country, French has been a predominant language in Louisiana since the arrival of settlers in 1700. But the introduction of a new Constitution in 1921 endangered French by making it undesirable, and even illegal in some cases. And it was not an isolated event. There are a wealth of anecdotes describing the negative image of French and its dialects throughout certain periods of American history.

One such example occurred in 1968. After decades of repression, French was given a new lease of life with the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. But the Cajun-born democrat representative James Domengeaux opposed teaching Cajun French in favor of European French. “Can you imagine teaching Cajun French? It would be like teaching redneck English”, he said at the time.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 150,000 Louisianans (3.5% of the state’s population) say they speak French or French Creole at home. There are three longstanding French dialects native to Louisiana: Colonial French, spoken by French people in the upper, property-owning classes; Modern Louisiana French, spoken by the Acadians who arrived in Louisiana after the Seven Years’ War, and Louisiana Creole French, an informal dialect derived from Colonial French but grammatically closer to Haitian Creole.

The Cajun French dialect is derived from Colonial French, and was spoken before the arrival of the Acadians. Over time this dialect integrated words from Spanish, English and African and Native American languages, and today is still spoken by Native American tribes such as the Houmas, the Biloxi, the Choctaw and the Chitimacha.

Paw Paw and those who defend it have enough support to continue championing French dialects in the United States. We can only hope that “We are still here” will still be translated by On est toujours icitte for centuries to come.

Article published in the March 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

  • Tout à fait l’évolution des langues dites minoritaires dans le monde entier. Ce qui échappe aux réformateurs ” musclés ” , c’est que leurs actions discriminatoires n’a pas joué à leur avantage car ils se sont coupés volontairement de leurs origines.
    Le fameux ” meltingpot” américain est le type même du brassage inévitable des populations , de leurs cultures. Voilà effacer toutes ses richesses culturelles est criminel et la résultante, c’est que tôt ou tard les choses se remettent en place.
    On ne éradiquer ce qui le charme de tout un peuple: sa diversité

      • Dear Rishi, About your comment “You want to write that in English so we Americans can understand?” Let me remind you that this website is bilangual. So I invite you to either add an other foreing language to your knowledge or just use the translating tool at the top-left corner of the page. Il faut savoir s’adapter à la mondialisation sans pour autant perdre son identité culturelle. Happy New Year 2018.

  • Excellent article, mais l’auteur aurait ciblé plus juste en écrivant “français louisianais” au lieu de “français cadien” car la réalité de la franco-créolophonie louisianaise est beaucoup plus complexe que seule celle des Cadiens. Il y a non moins de 18 groupes et immigrations qui ont influencé le français parlé en Louisiane.

    De plus, il n’y a pas de “communauté” francophone ; il y a des individus qui parlent français. Cette réalité est dû à l’assimilation forcée qui débuta après la Guerre de Sécession et plus particulièrement à l’imposition de l’anglais comme langue d’instruction et la ségrégation raciale des écoles (établissements différents pour les blancs, les noirs et les amérindiens) à partir de 1921. Les concepts de droits linguistiques ou identités linguistiques en français n’ont donc pas pu être développés et ont même été estompés chez les locuteurs de français et créole en Louisiane.

    C’est une histoire très complexe de marginalisation, de ségrégation et d’évolution de repères identitaires.


  • Fascinating article and well researched. I am not sure what “tinged with American” means. AMexican isn’t a language but the context makes it seem such.

  • Je m’accords bien selon les observations de M. Joseph Dunn. Le Francais de la louisiane n’est pas egal au patois des Acadiens, du passé et non de notre temps.

  • Les descendants des Acadians en louisiane ont assimilé tout aspects de la culture louisianaise indigene-creole-et tres necessairement ses patois sature’s de l’argot Mobilien-Choctaw auquel monde les coureurs de bois se sont entremariés. Effectivement, ils sont devenus “Creoles.”

  • Toujours admirative de la determination a sauver des langues derivees du français par les “francophones” outre atlantique. Dommage que ce ne fut pas toujours le cas en France ou la plupart des patois ont pratiquement tous disparus pour les mêmes raisons que celles invoquées dans l’article…

  • You know, English is the language of the US and all of Canada, except Quebec. Why don’t we all just keep it simple and speak English? English is my 3rd language (I’m from India), and it’s my wife’s sixth language. But we insist on speaking english, because we’re right-wing patriotic Americans, and English is the language of this land. We should all just speak english. If someone wants to learn other languages, more power to them. But we don’t need laws or mandates for that. Learn what you want, and use what language you want, informally. But all government business should be in English, and all American citizens (as my wife and I are) should be fluent in English. In all honesty, French is a language that is not widely used in the US. Sorry, truth.

    • Truth – but a sad and foolish truth that we Americans are so sadly deficient in foreign language skills. You would be hard put to find many Americans who speak six languages, as your wife does. Or three. Or two. (“What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American.”) Yes, all government and official documents should be in English, but to say “Learn what you want, and use what language you want, informally” is no encouragement for us to do better. I am embarrassed when I go to France or another francophone country and am praised effusively for my French language skills, generally with astonishment that an American can converse on abstract topics comfortably and well in a foreign language. Or at all… In a market this summer, a surprised vendor called over to his partner to come and listen to the American who “knows how to conjugate verbs!” “We should all just speak English.” Really? Only if we also “just stay home” and become for once and ever the smug isolationists that the larger world often perceives.
      Sorry. Truth.

  • One correction worth noting. In 1750, there was no such thing as French Canadians. Canada was part of Nouvelle-France, so “Canadian” and “French-speaking” were synonymous. There was no such people as “English Canadians” at that time.

  • Hey Rishi. You forgot what people from India have been fighting for. This poeple did not want to be assimilated by the British. They finaly got their independence and never gave up their language nor their culture to the invaders. That is exactly what the French people wants. Keep on fighting for their language and culture in Canada which is a bilangual country. I am a French-speaking person from French-Canadian roots and I have decided to respect the English-speaking people by learning thein language, hoping that some of them will have the same respect for the French-speaking people. Your opinion and comments reinforced my will to protect both my language and culture. Bonne et heureuse année 2018.

  • Rishi, why would you enter such comments on a bilingual site that promotes bilingualism? No, French is not widely used in the U.S., but at one time was widely used in south Louisiana. Many of us feel it is well worth the effort to preserve something that is very unique to us, and still be patriotic Americans. By stating that you are “right wing patriotic Americans”, are you insinuating that the rest of us aren’t? I fully support preserving French in all of its forms in the United States, and oh, by the way, I served in the U.S. Army for 20 years…to think I’m not patriotic because I like Louisiana French is laughable.

  • Je vis aux Etats-Unis et j’aime beaucoup ce pays, mais une chose n’empêche pas l’autre. And just in case some people are wondering, I’m fluent in English too. Truth. (C’est vrai!)

  • Thank you for another wonderful article. The place else may just anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect method of writing? I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am at the search for such information.

  • Rishi, that’s a very uniformed comment about French in Canada. Here in Manitoba, French has equal legal status in the government because when Manitoba was founded by Louis Riel in 1870, English and French were the official languages of the province. We have a dynamic francophone culture here in terms of music, art and literature. We have a French language university here as well as health services in French. My wife sings in a renown French choir and belongs to a francophone poetry group. Our children are perfectly bilingual and I have a bilingual government job. You should get your facts straight before using false information for your arguments.

  • Related

    • TV5 Monde Celebrates “French Month” in MarchTV5 Monde Celebrates “French Month” in March Promoting Francophone culture in the United States is the mission of TV5 Monde. And as part of "le Mois de la Francophonie" (French Month) celebrated every March, the channel will be […] Posted in News
    • Omaha parle françaisOmaha parle français Pendant près de 150 ans, le Nebraska était français. Mais depuis que le territoire a été vendu aux Etats-Unis en 1803, la présence française a quasiment disparu : seule une poignée de […] Posted in Education