Day 138: Pawpaw French

A sign on an old store reads "Bienvenu a la Vieille Mine," or "Welcome to the Old Mine."
A sign on an old store reads “Bienvenu a la Vieille Mine,” or “Welcome to the Old Mine.” From the NPR story “Saving a French Dialect that Once Echoed in the Ozarks”


There’s a dialect of American French that few people know about. Of course most have heard of Cajun French, and to a lesser extent Louisiana Creole, but what I’m talking about today has came to be known as “Pawpaw French” or “Missouri Creole French.”

French occupation and settlement in the New World was not limited to Canada and Louisiana. French explorers at one time had settlements all along the Mississippi Valley, from what is not Illinois, all the way to the Gulf. Many of these communities died off pretty early on, the Arkansas French towns, for instance. Or were merged with other communities as difference colonizers came into the area (such as the Spanish and English). One settlement that has lasted the longest is the Old Mines community of central Missouri. This community managed to keep its French identity well after the Louisiana Purchase, and most of the people still living there claim the “Pawpaw French” heritage.

From what I’ve heard that name, “Pawpaw French”, was a derogatory name given to the people living in the area by the later more “sophisticated” European colonizers. One origin of the name comes from the fact that it was said these settlers “ate pawpaws in the summer and possum in the winter” pointing toward the poverty of the community. Similar things were said about other Ozark communities by those on the outside. I just figure they were resourceful people that knew how to put food on the table, no matter where it came from.

Joseph Médard Carrière was probably the most adamant researcher of the Missouri French language and culture, and wrote several books and articles on the subject which are listed at the end of this post.

The Missouri French language and culture resembles that of other North American French communities e.g. Cajun and Canadian French. Which is no surprised considering these communities all trace their origins back to the first French settlements of Canada. The Cajuns were eventually exiled then migrated down to Louisiana, while other communities made their way down the Mississippi River and started other settlements. One aspect of the language and culture that points toward this common ancestry is the usage of old words and terms, mostly from the 16th and 17th century, mostly of a rural dialect, in the language of both Cajun French and Missouri French. Much of this old vocabulary is still used today. In my own research with Cajun and Creole folk remedies, many of the names for diseases, plants, and parts of the body can be traced directly back to rural France in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is no surprise considering how isolated these communities were here in the New World. The language began to evolve in a very different way from European French, or even the French of the later Canadian settlements.

The culture of the Pawpaw French has persisted through traditional music and folklore, but the language is considered to be endangered because of how few speakers there are. There is an effort in the Old Mines community, as well as other surrounding towns, to revive the language for younger speakers.

Works by Joseph Médard Carrière:
Creole dialect of Missouri
The phonology of Missouri French: A historical study
Tales from the French folk-lore of Missouri
Life and customs in the French villages of the old Illinois country
It’s good to tell you : French folktales from Missouri

NPR’s “Saving a French Dialect that Once Echoed in the Ozarks” 

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