Thursday, February 28, 2013

250 Years Ago* .... What French Sounded like in Missouri

Back in the days before St. Louis existed and for a long time after that, the European language that was spoken in the region was French. There is an interesting interview on the Archaeology website in which Dennis Stroughmatt speaks about the French of Old Mines Missouri.   While you click through to read in another tab, you might want to listen to Dennis playing:

Oh, who is Dennis Stroughmatt?  From his website:  "A vibrant blend of Celtic, Canadian and Old Time sounds, this music bridges the gap between contemporary Canadian and Louisiana Cajun styles. Preserved by families in the Ozark foothills, the music remains largely intact and true to the traditions that have been passed down for over three centuries..It’ll make your soul jump, your head spin, and your heart glad to know that it is still here ... As they say in the hills, “On est toujours icitte: We are still here!”"

The linked interview is interesting.  Most people don't know that the French culture lasted in Missouri as long as it did, especially in the very rural parts prior to World War II, after which the young people moved out and began to forget, leaving only the older generation:

When I went into the mines in the late [1980's] there were probably nearly a thousand French speakers in the entire Old Mines region from Festus, you know, to Potosi, and as far west as, you know, farther west of Richwood, east to Bonterre. There were French get-togethers within the church. You'd find them in retirement homes, getting together and at houses and the parties that I went to. A lot of the French were there. They were elderly, but still very strong, getting out. Many of them were in their 60s, 70s. Some of them, probably the most intensive speakers were in their 80s. Even early 90s. Fact, I interviewed one time, videotaped an herbalist by the name of Robert Robard, who was 94. This was in 1992. And French was his first language, and he chose to speak French rather than English. But, like I say, that sort of dates where they were age-wise over a decade ago. 
 But the French spoken at that time didn't sound exactly like standard French today.  I thought this part of the interview with Dennis was really interesting.  He tells about visiting Quebec for the first time:
... It was really strange at first, because, I say I didn't really, I say I was illiterate. I had taken a couple courses in French at one point or another, here and there, but I spoke Creole French, and when I got there, the Québecois thought that, they thought that I was actually Cajun, because of my dialect. And the only reason I say that they thought I was Cajun when I got there was because I had spent so many years in Louisiana and around Cajuns that my dialect had been influenced in some ways. And of course actually Missouri French is an interesting language in itself, because, via its accent, it's very much more close to Canadian French than it is Louisiana French. But the vocabulary used by the Missouri French is almost identical to that of Louisiana, and that stands to reason because Missouri is Upper Louisiana, in that sense. And I guess, when I did go to Québec, in a lot of ways I really did feel like I was home. I used to sit down...I lived with a family there, and I remember many nights where I would sit out in the backyard at a campfire with the father of the household, and we would just sit and talk, and every now and again I would say words and he would get on me for using certain words. Because he would say "that's Old French," he said, "We don't use that anymore.”

I remember one night, probably the very first night that happened. I remember it was a little cold, because when I got there it was the early part of the year and it was cold at night. And I said something like, "Mais, ca fait fraitte dehors," like "man it's cold outside." And he looked at me, he agreed, he said, "Yeah, yeah, it's cold." Then he stopped and he said, "Wait a second. Why do you know that word?" I said, "What word?" He said "cold," but of course "fraitte," which is a Missouri word. A Missouri French word for froid, for cold. But it's an old, old, old word that hasn't been...I didn't know this at the time, but it's a word that hasn't been in use in the language for hundreds of years. And he asked me where I learned this, and I told him where, and he said, "That's impossible." He said, "There are no French speakers in the Midwest. That's impossible." You know, and I got out the map, we got out the map of Illinois and Missouri, and started looking at it, going over all the little place names. Rivers, town names. And he set back and I remember him just looking at me like, "Wow, I never knew." He said, "I never would have guessed that there were French there." And I said, "Well, that's where I learned my French." And he told me, he said, "Well, you know, I've always found it really weird," because, he said, "You're not from Canada. You're not anywhere near from Canada, but yet your accent is strangely familiar." And the only thing I can say on that is that accent is coming through from the Missouri French. So, because there is a great similarity. I would go down to the pub and I would sing songs with some of the local bands that would come in, and it amazed me that I was able--and even playing the fiddle, I would sit in and play with them--that I was able to play tunes that I had learned in Missouri, play with them almost note for note. And this is a separation of what, a thousand miles? Fifteen hundred?
Here's another video where Dennis and his wife explain the difference between the French dialect of the Pays des Illinois and standard French:

I always thought that the reason we massacred the French names of streets around here was because of the German and Irish influx of the nineteenth century.  And, sure, that's probably the main reason.  But another reason might be that the original French didn't pronounce it the way it would be pronounced in French today.

Here's a link to another interesting article about French History and Language in the American Midwest.

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.