Paw Paw French: Two 20-somethings bet St. Louis can save a vanishing dialect | St. Louis Public Radio

Paw Paw French: Two 20-somethings bet St. Louis can save a vanishing dialect

Jul 13, 2015

St. Louisans can now take classes to learn a nearly dead dialect of French once spoken throughout eastern Missouri.

Paw Paw French, also known as Illinois Country French or Missouri French, originated with early French settlers to the St. Louis region. It was spoken across a wide area, ranging from Vincennes, Ind., through Illinois, to the Missouri Ozarks, including areas like Old Mines (La Vieille Mine), Ste. Genevieve and Potosi.

Though there's a large sign in Old Mines announcing that even after "300 ans on est toujours icitte" or "300 years, we are still here," the number of speakers has declined significantly and the dialect is considered highly endangered.

But two twenty-somethings in St Louis are hoping to save the dialect by teaching more people to speak it.

"If we save this dialect, we could save a culture." -Nathanael Alire, founder of Illinois Country French Preservation Inc.

Nathanael Alire, a 20-year-old college student and head of the Illinois Country French Preservation Inc., will be teaching a five-week Paw Paw language course starting on Monday. They will be held at the Central West End-based education and tutoring start-up Harvest Education, founded by 27-year-old Brandon Curry.

“If we save this dialect, we could save a culture…and make people proud of where they come from,” Alire said. “We have thousands of their descendants just living among (us). There are all these people reclassified as Americans, but have lost their roots along the way, lost who they are, lost who their ancestors were. To me, that’s just sad to not know where you come from and not to know your own history. For the people here, why they would be so interested in the dialect, it’s because it’s who they are.”

A map of the wide range of the area where Illinois Country French, also known as Paw Paw, was spoken.
Credit Courtesy Illinois Country French Preservation Inc. | Facebook

But while Alire has established classes already in Ste. Genevieve, Curry said he believes it's important that the classes be offered in St. Louis.

“If this dialect is going to be rejuvenated in a sense then it has to start in St. Louis; that’s where the cultural center is here,” he said. “There’s so much of this French culture left and we have these blinders on when walking down streets – when walking down Chouteau or Gravois. The history is there; people care about it. People here want to know about the history, want to celebrate it and want to let it be a part of who they are.”

The classes will be for beginners and no knowledge of any French is needed to take the course. Alire said he also wants to teach the language in a non-traditional, informal way, helping students learn only what they need to know to start to immerse themselves so he can quickly “spit out a few more fluent speakers than in a traditional classroom setting."

"It doesn’t require four to 10 years of intense grammatical training to be connected to history here," Curry said.

But Alire said even those familiar with French will notice a distinct difference in pronunciation.

“We don’t say our ‘R’s’ in the back of the throat, we roll them like in Spanish or Italian,” Alire said. Curry adds: “I think a non-linguist would hear this and say that the Paw Paw French is much more nasal, much more gravelly, where there’s a lot more glide to Parisian French."

The vocabulary used in Paw Paw is also distinct from classic French, Alire said.

“A lot of the plants and animals that exist here in North America don’t exist in Europe,” Alire said. “When settlers came here, they needed to make up words for them.”

Alire said often, they used words they inherited from Native Americans and even African slaves. The Paw Paw word for bullfrog is "ouaouaron" (pronounced "wah-wah-rohn"), an onomatopoeia originating with Native Americans.

Another example is the word "hyena" or "bouki" (pronounced "boo-kee") in Paw Paw. According to Alire, the word comes from the Wolof language of Senegal in Africa that came to the Louisiana territory with the slaves and traveled up to Missouri by trade routes along the Mississippi.

“If you really want to latch onto the words, you have to know the story,” Curry said. “The history of it allows you to remember it and understand why it’s that way. You’re never going to forget ‘bouki.’ Now you know how to say ‘hyena’ in a…let’s say, a dialect that’s on life support.”

Listen: How does Paw Paw sound?

Here are some other words in Paw Paw and their pronunciations:

  • carencro (car an crow) - turkey buzzard
  • bête piante (bet-pee-yont) - skunk (literally, stinky beast)
  • pis (pee) - and/then
  • zoiseau (zwah-zoo) - bird (a pronunciation brought to the region in the 18th century by African slaves)
  • bois-pourri (bwah-poo-ree) - whip-poor-will
  • Ouabache (wah-bash) - Wabash (from Native Americans)
  • char (shaw) - car
  • aussitte (aw-seet) - also/too
  • ben (ben) - good (versus standard French 'bien,' pronounced byehn)

"I thought the accent was amazing, the vocabulary choice was amazing. It was so American, but in French." -Nathanael Alire

An online journey, a fortuitous meeting

Alire has been speaking French for years, but has long had an interest in North American dialects, such as those in Quebec in Canada or Creole in Louisiana. But none held the appeal for Alire like Paw Paw, who was first introduced to it through videos from well-known Paw Paw historian and fiddler Dennis Stroughmatt.

“I just fell in love with the way he was speaking,” Alire said. “I just thought it was so cool. I thought the accent was amazing, the vocabulary choice was amazing. It was so American, but in French. So I just kind of fell in love with it, started studying it.”

From there, he began to teach himself the language, listening to folk songs and fairy tales over the internet. He found the pronunciation similar to Quebecois, the vocabulary like that of Louisiana French. He also got help from mentor Kent Bone, a Paw Paw speaker from De Soto.

Once hooked on the language, Alire said he couldn't wait until he graduated college to try to make an effort to save it. Alire said he thinks that drive comes from his own background.

Harvest Education's Brandon Curry (left) and Nathanael Alire, who will teach the Paw Paw classes, chat in French.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

“My family comes from northern New Mexico where they have their own dialect of Spanish,” he said. “My whole family speaks it. This dialect is nowhere near dead yet, but it’s going to die soon because the youngest speakers are in their 30s…It’s going to disappear in 50 years. I relate to that. This is a culture that’s going to disappear.”

Only a century ago, thousands of Missourians still spoke the Paw Paw dialect, and even ten years ago there were still hundreds of speakers, Alire said.

“But they were old and dying off,” he said. “They didn’t teach their kids because of how they were shamed in school. Teachers would punish them. They were made fun of when they would go to the corner store and get groceries and didn’t know the English word for something. They vowed they wouldn’t speak French again.”

So Alire set about moving to St. Louis to establish his language preservation incorporation, and luckily, found Curry and Harvest Education through a couch-surfing site.

“It’s particularly odd because we run an education start-up for things that are pretty much exactly (locally relevant education programs), and in addition, I had gone to grad school for linguistics, specifically dialectology, and I have been speaking French for the last 15 years,” Curry said. “It was a very serendipitous meeting.”

Upon arrival, Alire set about starting his preservation incorporation and began a Facebook page, and even hosted a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything on the dialect. He also quickly established classes in St. Genevieve, where he found quite a bit of interest.  

“Just with our 12 speakers in St. Genevieve, we’ve doubled our speakers in Paw Paw,” Alire said.

Certainly, Alire is not the first to try to bring attention to the Paw Paw dialect and its endangered status. But given he says he's among the youngest speakers, he's hoping to attract interest in it from a younger demographic, such as college or even high school students. In that sense, both Alire and Curry say their youth works in their favor.

“You have to save it at this age…to make sure that there’s continuity between generations,” Curry said. “You can’t save it as a 75-year-old person…So I’m personally really impressed with what Nate’s doing here because 20 is the perfect age to get started on something like this and see it through to the end."

Alire also said he works well in the energetic, passionate environment at Harvest. Curry said that enthusiasm helps with such a big mission.

“We are young and stupid in the sense that we want to do these grand things, and we don’t have any realists here telling us we can’t,” he said. “We’re just going to go forward with it and we've surprisingly met with a lot of success so far.”