Language lovers and locals of an isolated mining region of the Ozarks are scrambling to preserve what’s left of a dialect known as pawpaw French before it fades. The dialect once dominated this comm
unity in southeastern Missouri, but now, it is barely a whisper.
Kent Bone didn’t grow up speaking pawpaw French. But he listened to his grandparents gossip in the language, and as an adult, Bone decided to learn it himself. He says his mother, who’s 82, understands him when he speaks to her in pawpaw; it’s common for people who are now in their 70s and 80s to know some pawpaw French but not enough to be fluent.
Cyrilla Boyer, 78, has lived in Old Mines, Mo., her whole life.
“My father and mother spoke French very fluently, but they didn’t want us to speak it because it had such trouble in school,” Boyer says.
She says in the 1920s and 1930s, teachers would smack students’ knuckles for speaking any French in the classroom. The language became stigmatized, so parents didn’t think it was worth passing on. Now, only a handful of people speak it, and most know only a smattering of words and phrases.
Pawpaw French — named after a local fruit-bearing tree — is a linguistic bridge that melds a Canadian French accent with a Louisiana French vocabulary. The French originally settled Old Mines around 1723, back when the area was part of upper Louisiana. Floods of workers from Canada and Louisiana came to work the lead mines.
The dialect faded in other nearby towns like De Soto and Bonne Terre and Ste. Genevieve a long time ago. Pawpaw French persisted in Old Mines because it is much more remote.
Historian and musician Dennis Stroughmatt is pawpaw French’s ambassador to the outside world. He first visited Old Mines back in the 1990s for a class project while a student at Southeast Missouri State University. At the time, there were hundreds of pawpaw speakers there.
Just like that, he was hooked.
Stroughmatt says he hung out in Old Mines every weekend to learn the dialect and the traditional Missouri Cajun fiddle tunes.
“It’s like eating candy when I speak pawpaw French. That’s the best way I can say. It’s a sweet French to me,” Stroughmatt says.
Stroughmatt says pawpaw French has what he calls “a big accent.”
“You can hear it, these big kind of like rolling things about it. You tip your jaw a little bit when you’re talking the language,” he says.
Stroughmatt harbors no illusions that the language will ever be spoken by many more people, but he hopes parts of it will survive and that kids will learn some phrases — something, anything that will help them retain some identity of Missouri’s pawpaw French here in the Ozarks.