Missouri's paw-paw French dialect fading into silence

Mere dozens are believed to speak the language of some of North America's earliest French settlers

Natalie Villmer reads over notes written in paw-paw French, which was spoken by her ancestors.
Ryan Schuessler

OLD MINES, Mo. — In hand-painted yellow letters on an old shack next to St. Joachim’s Catholic Church just off Route 21 are a few simple words, “Bienvenue a la Vieille Mine” — Welcome to the old mine.

It’s a salutation to the past in a place peppered with historic artifacts, in a dying dialect.

St. Joachim's Catholic Church is in the distance.
Ryan Schuessler

In this place just a stone’s throw from St. Louis, there are still tree markers left by the Cherokee as they passed through on the Trail of Tears. Locals can point out which houses were part of the Underground Railroad. Bearded hunters in bright orange hats and celestial-looking elders alike kneel in a church overlooking a hillside adorned with rusted iron crosses, some mangled and twisted into unrecognizable shapes by time.

Some of the earliest French settlers in North America arrived here centuries ago and never left this corner of eastern Missouri. And the language they spoke is now nearly silent.

She may not be fluent, but Natalie Villmer is one of what could be only dozens of individuals left who speak any paw-paw French, a dialect now found only in the hills of the northeastern Missouri Ozarks.

It won’t be long before the language is nothing more than a memory.

The remaining speakers “would have to be people that are in and around Old Mines,” Villmer said. “(They) would be over 75, 80 (years old).”

An effort to fit in

Villmer was born in a log cabin just down the road from St. Joachim’s and comes from one of the region’s oldest families. In fact, her family has been in this part of the world for as long as anyone can remember.

“Some of them date back to the late 1700s,” she said. “My great-great-great-grandfather had one of the first Old Mines land concessions.”

Natalie Villmer.
Ryan Schuessler

Growing up, Villmer lived with French-speaking parents and a French-speaking grandfather. But the language didn’t get passed down, largely because of the stigma attached to Francophones in this region. Her father grew up in a time when French-speaking children were starting to go to English-speaking schools without knowledge of that language, and interacting with other non-French speakers.

Speaking paw-paw French became associated with being ignorant, uneducated and backward.

“As a little kid, that made an impression on him,” Villmer said. “He wasn’t too keen on us learning French.”

So like many of Natalie’s generation in Old Mines, she never did learn paw-paw French, save for a few phrases and songs. That’s why it’s so hard to find anyone who still knows the language today, and even those who do are hesitant to admit it.

“I think our parents wanted us to fit in,” she said.

The Villmers’ story is typical, said Scott Gossett, who studies francophone literature at the University of Missouri. He said when that small communities like Old Mines became industrialized, there wasn’t really a need for French anymore, and learning English became a matter of survival.

“They just thought it would be easier to teach their children English to give them the best chance for success,” he said. “To survive, really.”

It was only in recent years that views of minority languages like paw-paw French have changed, Gossett said.

“Language was a stigma,” he said. “Only recently in the past half a century or so have we started to see language as an asset as opposed to a detriment.” 

A gap in knowledge

But that might not be enough to save the dialect found around Old Mines. One of the problems, Gossett said, is that there hasn’t been a continuous academic study of paw-paw French, as there has with Cajun French in Louisiana. The last academic analysis of Missouri’s dialect that Gossett could find was written in 1939. 

“That in and of itself is a big problem,” he said. “There’s a big lacuna in that part of the history. Even between 1939 and now, what happened to those people? They probably just stopped. It’s not like you teach an unwritten language, you just pass it along. People just started learning English instead.”

The lyrics to "La Guignolee."
Ryan Schuessler

A small number of researchers came to Old Mines in the 1970s and found the language already in decline. Out of the local French stories and songs that were collected to be published, one tune in particular, “La Guignolee,” has become an enduring symbol of the French heritage of Old Mines.

Villmer learned “La Guignolee,” which is traditionally sung on New Year’s, in the ’70s, and has since taught it to children at St. Joachim’s Catholic School over the years. She’s performed it in Missouri as well as at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

LISTEN: Natalie Villmer sings 'La Guignolee'

“Music is just a big part of the culture. It always has been,” said Dennis Stroughmatt, an Illinois-based musician and friend of the Old Mines community.

Stroughmatt grew up in a part of southeastern Illinois where at a young age he met some of the last people there and in Indiana who would have spoken the same French as that in Old Mines. His interest in French language carried on to his years at Southeast Missouri State University, where he heard about Old Mines from a professor. 

Dennis Stroughmatt.
Bridgit Bowden

Over the course of a few years in the late ’80s, Stroughmatt spent time around Old Mines visiting with the French speakers and learning their language. One of his first interactions with a paw-paw French speaker in Old Mines was with Villmer’s mother, now deceased.

“I basically went every weekend,” Stroughmatt said. “I was up there a lot. Slept on floors, couches.”

Stroughmatt may be the youngest speaker of paw-paw French alive today. Last year he was the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the American Association of Teachers of French. He gave the address in the Old Mines dialect and got a standing ovation.

LISTEN: 'The French we speak's not that pretty' — Dennis Stroughmatt

“The French-speaking world is losing its link to the 1600s,” Stroughmatt said. “Essentially the French that’s spoken in Old Mines is a Norman-Britain French. That really hearkens back to the Middle Ages, into the medieval period. That’s what’s going to be lost.”

'Very few people care'

At its peak, the French spoken in Old Mines would have been found throughout the region — from southern Indiana and Illinois into the Missouri cities of St. Louis, Florissant, St. Genevieve and others. Stroughmatt described it as the bridge between the French spoken in Quebec and Louisiana, “both linguistically and musically.”

But it’s a bridge that’s on the brink of disappearing altogether.

“There’s a sort of sadness with it,” Stroughmatt said. “If I had the ability to get 100 people in a classroom, and had the funding to do so, I would do my darnedest to teach the language to people, to keep it going. But it’s one of those things where very few people care.”

When Stroughmatt arrived in Old Mines in the ’80s, there were hundreds of paw-paw French speakers, if not more than 1,000, still alive. Traditional bouillons with music, food and dancing happened every weekend.

However, many of the citizens of Old Mines who taught Stroughmatt to speak paw-paw French have since died, and there are only a handful of fluent speakers left. The Old Mines of 20 years ago looked — and sounded — very different than it does today.

“We’ll lose this language,” Villmer said. “That’s a tragedy, but I guess that’s progress.”

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