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Missouri French (French: français du Missouri), also known as Illinois Country French and nicknamed "Paw-Paw French" or, in the dialect itself, la française assimine, is a nearly extinct variety of the French language formerly spoken in the upper Mississippi River Valley in the Midwestern United States, particularly in eastern Missouri. Once spoken widely across the region known as the Illinois Country or Upper Louisiana, the dialect is now highly endangered, with only a few elderly local residents able to speak it.

Missouri French
français du Missouri
Native to Missouri
Region Missouri and elsewhere along the Mississippi River valley
Native speakers
Unknown; perhaps a few dozen (2014)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

It is one of the major forms of French that developed in what is now the United States, the others being Louisiana French, New England French, Muskrat French and Métis French.



Ulrich Ammon compares it to the other two major forms of French that developed within the present-day United States: Louisiana French and New England French, which he considers largely a New England variety of Canadian French.[2] J.-M. Carrière, who studied the dialect in the 1930s, described it as generally similar to other North American varieties, though with a number of distinguishing features. Notably, he found that Missouri French had been heavily influenced by English, with many English words and even entire idiomatic phrases borrowed or translated into the dialect.[3] The variety features few borrowings from Spanish, African and Native American languages, which are common in Louisiana French.[4]

The dialect contains vocabulary and grammar structure found in Louisiana French and Canadian French.[5] Many phonological elements, however, are more similar to Canadian French than other varieties.[6] Other phonological elements are unique in North American French, sometimes retaining archaic elements; for example Missouri French retains the [o] common in 16th-century French that has evolved into [u] in most other dialects.[7]


Speakers of Missouri French, who call themselves Créoles, are descendants of the early French settlers of the upper Mississippi River Valley, the region then known as Illinois Country (French: Pays des Illinois) or Upper Louisiana (French: Haute-Louisiane). French colonization of the region began in the late 17th century by Acadian coureurs des bois from what is now Canada. By 1760, they had settled six towns — Cahokia, Kaskaskia, St. Philippe, Nouvelle Chartres, and Prairie du Rocher in present-day Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve in Missouri — and claimed the region for the colony of French Louisiana.[8][9] Poste Vincennes was more of a French Canadian outpost.

As the British moved into the Northwest Territory (the region to the east of the Mississippi), which they finally annexed in 1765 following the French and Indian War, many of these French colonists relocated across the river into what is now Missouri, establishing St. Louis and other settlements and outposts. From that time through the early 19th century Creoles began settling in the Ozark highlands above the river, particularly after all of French Louisiana was sold to the United States in 1803.[9] French speakers flocked to the mountains following Moses Austin's establishment of serious mining operations at Potosi in 1797, and founded settlements such as Old Mines (French: La Vieille Mine), which became a center of Missouri French language and culture.[8]

Linguists began studying Missouri's French enclave in the 20th century, as the dialect was dying out. At this time much of the population was centered in the Old Mines area in the Missouri Ozarks; the language has also been spoken in Bonne Terre, Valles Mines, Desloge, De Soto, Ste. Genevieve, Saint Louis, Missouri; Richwoods Missouri; Prairie du Rocher, Illinois; Cahokia, Illinois; Kaskaskia, Illinois; and Vincennes, Indiana.[10] J.-M. Carrière noted that there were around 600 French-speaking families around Old Mines in the 1930s and 1940s.[9] Carrière undertook a study of the dialect, recording 73 folk tales from local conteurs. In particular he noted the influence of English, particularly among younger speakers, and felt this was a sign of eventual displacement.[11] This contact led to a substantial decline in use of French over the next decades. Scholars visiting the area in the 1970s further noted the decline, though around 1000 speakers remained in the area in the 1980s.[1] In 1989, Ulrich Ammon estimated that only a handful of elderly speakers in isolated pockets remained.[2] In 2014 news stories reported that although fewer than 30 speakers remained in Old Mines, an effort to preserve the dialect has begun.[1][10]


  1. ^ a b c Bowden, Bridgit; Godin, Jake; Schuessler, Ryan (2014-09-01). "Missouri's paw-paw French dialect fading into silence". Al Jazeera America. Retrieved 2017-02-23. 
  2. ^ a b Ammon, pp. 306–308.
  3. ^ Carrière 1939, pp. 113–119.
  4. ^ Carrière 1939, pp. 110–111.
  5. ^ Carrière 1939, p. 111.
  6. ^ Carrière 1941a.
  7. ^ Carrière 1941a, p. 414.
  8. ^ a b Carrière 1939, p. 109.
  9. ^ a b c Carrière 1941a, p. 410.
  10. ^ a b AP (2014-06-24). "History buffs race to preserve dialect in Missouri". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-06-28. 
  11. ^ Carrière 1939, p. 119.


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