Disappearing Dialect Calls Small Missouri Town Home

By Linda Ong | long@kolr10.com

Published 07/22 2014 08:22PM

Updated 07/30 2014 01:44AM

OLD MINES, Mo. -- Only a handful of people still speak a language once popular in eastern Missouri. It's called Paw Paw French and its one of the oldest French dialects that originated in the United States.

Old Mines, Missouri is called home to one of the few remaining speakers of the language.

Paw Paw French is a dialect that became localized in Missouri and Illinois. It has Cajun, American Indian, and Canadian French influences.

Efforts to preserve the language are few and far between, but those who do speak it are trying to hold on to every word.

The tune of La Guilonee takes you back in time to Old Mines in the 1700's.

"The French froze, the language froze, it didn't grow any, except for people making up words,” says Natalie Villmer. “They kind of took the English word, and kind of put their twist to it."

This dialect became known as Paw Paw French. It was spoken by many 18th-century French settlers, like Villmer's family, who called Old Mines their new home.

"My great grandfather came directly from France to New York and to Belleville and then here,” says Villmer. “So he brought French with him from France. He was a miller."

Once spoken by thousands of people at its peak, Paw Paw French is now fading into existence and Villmer is one of the handfuls of remaining speakers who is trying to keep it alive.

"By the 80s and 90s, all those older people passed away,” says Villmer. “And so today there's very few that, you know, like myself, maybe they can say some phrases, you know, c'est un jolie junee, you know, it's a beautiful day."

But very rarely now are these phrases spoken.

Joe Politte also speaks Paw Paw french.

"Aside from bonjour, comment ca va, comment-allez vous, that type of thing- how are you, how ya doing- conversational French is very rare anymore around here,” says Politte.

The dialect was handed down informally, generation to generation. Villmer was taught by her parents and grandfather.

"They didn't want people knowing what they were saying so they'd get on the phone and talk in French, and laugh and carry on because they always said that the French was much funnier than the English language,” says Villmer.

But around the 1930's, Paw Paw French began to lose its prominence.

Tonia Tinsley is a French professor at Missouri State University. She says the decline is due to assimilation.

"People started to associate it with a lack of education or being somewhat isolated from the rest of society, and kind of being old fashioned,” says Tinsley.

The dialect isn't extensively documented, except for a few articles and books, which is why Villmer is trying to preserve the language by teaching others through song.

"That's easier than trying to keep the language going on a daily basis,” she says.

Despite her efforts and that of a few others, Villmer says the interest in learning the language just isn't there.

She says the language will not stand the test of time.

“It’s dying out now and it just won't exist anymore,” says Villmer.

It’s an impending end to a dialect that will soon fade into mere memories.

"You lose a lot of your history,” says Politte. “You lose a lot of where you came from."

“It is sad that it's being lost,” says Villmer.

Villmer says there are a few other Paw Paw French speakers in Old Mines, as well as in De Soto, Festus, and St. Louis.

There are annual festivals held in and surrounding Old Mines which hold onto the rich traditions of the early French settlers.

Villmer says she hopes interest in learning Paw Paw French will grow before the remaining speakers all pass away.

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