OLD MINES, Mo. (AP) — 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 talked to us 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 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, also known as Missouri-Illinois French or paw-paw French for the region's plentiful paw-paw fruit trees, flourished in the isolation of communities such as Old Mines and was used by hundreds of families for generations.
Music scholar Dennis Stroughmatt first discovered 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.