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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.”
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.
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.”
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.”