Let’s play a little game. Do you speak English? Are you sure? Okay then, read this.
WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye.
I’ll wait …. tap tap tap ….. okay, you gave up and called me a rude name didn’t you? That’s okay, let’s try it again. Same story, different English.
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye.
You read it, you can pronounce all the words and you still have no idea what the fuck this dude’s talking about. The dude, by the way, is Geoffrey Chaucer, and those paragraphs are part of the Prologue to Canterbury Tales. The collection of 20 stories, all tales about traveling the road to Canterbury in the late 1300’s, were wildly popular in their day. There’s no porn, no teen hearthrob, and the author could write above the 3rd grade level, so it would never be published now.
That being said, he didn’t write this for you or me. He used the language of the day to speak to his contemporaries. And that language, English though it may have been called, is dead. As is Latin, the first official language of the Bible. As is Ancient Greek, the language the Bible was written in and as is Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
Simply put, languages evolve and, when they can’t, they die. Bemoan all you wish the use of hashtag instead of pound sign, but it is proof that our language is still vital. It can change to fit the speaker. And those changes can be understood by all.
Still, it is because some people care enough about where we came from that I was able to post Chaucer’s epic here today. It is in that spirit that a group of researchers are trying to capture the last breaths of a uniquely American langue that will be dead in less than 20 years.
Alan Scher Zagier tells the story of Missouri French.
A small circle of history researchers is racing to capture the last remnants of a little-known French dialect that endures in some old Missouri mining towns before the few remaining native speakers succumb to old age.
So-called Missouri French is spoken by fewer than 30 people in Old Mines, southwest of St. Louis, although dozens of others can still rattle off phrases from childhood songs or overheard conversations involving their parents and grandparents.
“When they didn’t want us to know what they talked about,” they spoke in French, said Lucy Baquette, whose husband traces his regional roots back to the founding families of St. Louis.
Other languages once common in parts of North America have suffered similar fates, including some American Indian tongues. But Missouri French has the distinction of being one of only three French dialects believed to have originated in the United States. And it remained in wide use in these parts well into the 20th century.
Still, the language has received far less attention from cultural historians and language experts than the Creole and Cajun French spoken in present-day Louisiana and other variations heard in New England states along the Canadian border.
The language developed among French settlers who came to southeast Missouri by way of Canada nearly 300 years ago to extract lead from the northern Ozarks in a territory known then as Upper Louisiana.
The dialect is also known as Missouri-Illinois French or paw-paw French for the region’s plentiful paw-paw trees, which bear a sweet, mango-like fruit. The language flourished in the isolation of communities such as Old Mines and was used by hundreds of families for generations.
Music scholar Dennis Stroughmatt first learned about it 20 years ago as a student at Southeast Missouri State University in nearby Cape Girardeau. With a folklore professor’s encouragement and a semester of college French, he befriended families in and around Old Mines in an effort to preserve the region’s music and language.
He recorded old-timers’ oral histories, uncovered scratchy wax cylinder recordings and embraced the role as a modern-day storyteller.
Using his grandfather’s fiddle, he also performed at the house parties known as bouillons. His three-piece band, l’Esprit Creole, played the songs of Upper Louisiana at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and other venues in the U.S. and abroad, including the Fete de L’Automme, an annual fall festival in Old Mines.
In May, the Missouri Humanities Council honored Stroughmatt, citing his work to “revive an epoch of Midwestern history that was on the verge of extinction.”
“They have fought to keep their language and culture alive,” said Stroughmatt, who as a graduate student moved from the Midwest to Quebec to further his French studies. “I want to do anything I can to help.”
Missouri French is an amalgam of Old Norman French, Native American languages and frontier English. The regional dialect was also spoken in surrounding mine-belt towns such as Bonne Terre, Valles Mines, De Sloge, De Soto and Ste. Genevieve in the area about 65 miles south of St. Louis, he said.
The language remained intact in Old Mines, away from major highways and rail lines, well after residents of other towns began speaking mostly English.
While European French speakers drive to the grocery store in their “voitures,” their Old Mines counterparts rely on “chars” — a word that means tank or cart to most other Francophones.
Carol Diaz-Granados, an anthropology researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who studies the region’s Native American archaeology, heralded Stroughmatt’s historical preservation efforts.
Missouri French “was on the verge of being lost,” she said. “People are passing away. It’s the end of an era.”
Diaz-Granados is a board member of the Old Mines Area Historical Society, a volunteer group working to restore an old log cabin on the outskirts of town that would serve as the centerpiece of a 19th century village and history museum commemorating the region’s deep French roots.
The belated appreciation of that French heritage is emerging in a place where Missouri French speakers once faced scorn and ridicule for their strange tongue, particularly as public education and compulsory English lessons replaced church-based learning a century ago.
The area’s unofficial slogan is a testament to its resilience: “On est toujours icitte.” We are still here.
Yeah, but not for long.
Sure it’s said when a piece of history dies but that’s what history does. If it didn’t there would be no progress. And, yes, I know there are those who actively encourage living in the past but they get a little vague when you try and press them which past they are talking about.
The simple fact is this, it’s great that the researchers are doing what they’re doing. Missouri French is a fascinating look at etymology and social isolation. But, after that? You’re not heading down to your Volvo dealer and asking for a good deal on a char any time soon.
Sigur Ros – Gobbledigook by le-pere-de-colombe
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