A story by Pam Belluck in today’s NY Times describes the changing fortunes of the French language in Maine:

Frederick Levesque was just a child in Old Town, Me., when teachers told him to become Fred Bishop, changing his name to its English translation to conceal that he was French-American.
Cleo Ouellette’s school in Frenchville made her write “I will not speak French” over and over if she uttered so much as a “oui” or “non” — and rewarded students with extra recess if they ratted out French-speaking classmates.
And Howard Paradis, a teacher in Madawaska forced to reprimand French-speaking students, made the painful decision not to teach French to his own children. “I wasn’t going to put my kids through that,” Mr. Paradis said. “If you wanted to get ahead you had to speak English.”
That was Maine in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the stigma of being French-American reverberated for decades afterward. But now, le Français fait une rentrée — French is making a comeback…

You can go to the article to read about the comeback; what I want to focus on is the bad old days. I can understand the reaction against the language of the enemy during wartime, against German during both world wars for example; it’s irrational and deplorable, but understandable. But why on earth were people subjecting their neighbors and their neighbors’ children to that kind of harassment in the ’50s and ’60s? It shocks me to learn that during the very years when I was happily learning French, others of my generation were being punished for using it in a supposedly free country. If anyone can explain this to me, please do. I mean, generalized “why can’t they speak English” griping is one thing; forcing people to change their name is quite another.

Incidentally, Benjamin Zimmer discusses this story in Language Log and demolishes the idea that “French-American French, derived from people who left France for Canada centuries ago, resembles the French of Louis XIV more than the modern Parisian variety.”

While I’m on the subject of the Sunday Times, I have to let William Safire have it yet again. His latest column contains the idiotic statement “Most Americans associate the phrase Fur Ball, usually capitalized, with events to raise funds for the Humane Society or A.S.P.C.A.” When I read this, I thought perhaps I, having been raised abroad, was an unrepresentative sample of Americans, so I turned to my wife and said “Say, what do you associate the phrase fur ball with?” She thought for a moment and said she associated it with cats. Wanting to give Safire a fair shake, I said “Are you sure you don’t associate it with events to raise funds for the Humane Society or A.S.P.C.A.?” She looked at me as if I were crazy. Perhaps Safire should have an automatic blinders-checker that would replace the phrase “most Americans” with “the tiny group of insiders I hang out with.” While I’m at it, he calls this a “familiar saying”: “If they want me in on the crash landings, I better damn well be in on the takeoffs.” And he claims it’s bad English to say “Our discussion anchored itself on Article II” because his old pal Rear Adm. Dick West (retired) says “In the Navy we say anchored in… as in ‘anchored in 300 fathoms of water.’ To be more specific, you could say that the anchor is on rock, sand or sediment. When you want to say you’re physically attached to something, you say that you’re moored to it, like moored to the dock.” That’s nice, but it has nothing to do with usage by English speakers outside of the Navy. Come on, Bill, wouldn’t you rather be golfing? If you must write a weekly column, couldn’t you pick a subject you can write sensibly about?


  1. michael farris says

    “Most Americans associate the phrase Fur Ball, usually capitalized, with events to raise funds for the Humane Society or A.S.P.C.A.”
    Before the internet: I assume it’ssomething a cat spits up.
    After the internet: I assume it’s a social event for people who like to dress up (and/or have sex) in anthropomorphic animal outfits.

  2. Steve, I think the urge to suppress other languages in the classroom comes partly from a desire to control.
    Paranoid teachers are naturally threatened by pupils having another channel of communication.

  3. John Emerson says

    Here in Minnesota there are a lot of French names, but in most of the state they don’t speak French (though there are a few areas up by Canada where they do). There’s not a lot of French pride; there seems to be some defensiveness (they’re sort of salt-of-the-earth country people, and were probably mostly here before the Anglophone pioneers arrived around 1850-60..
    The psychologist / philosopher George Herbert Mead learned usable French in his youth from his New England neighborhood. He mentioned French-language comix. I suspect that Thoreau’s fluent French owed something to ombiont (read a for o) New England French, though his family was well anglicized. Jack Kerouac’s father published a French-language newspaper, though Kerouac’s family was originally Breton and may not have known French when they arrived.

  4. A similar belief is held by some people in Venezuela (mainly criollos, of course): they actually think their local Spanish is closer to the “original” Castellano than the modern language spoken in Madrid.

  5. I’m a Maine native, and there is a huge stigma attached to being French. In fact, the word “french” is sometimes used to mean “backward” or “retarded”. The French people that came to Maine took a majority of the factory jobs, were Catholic, and some were illegal. They still tend to live in their own communities, usually near their Church. They were ostracized and regarded with hate, just like the Hispanic community is today. In fact, Schoolkids in some Massachusett’s schools are forbidden to speak Spanish anywhere but a Spanish classroom.

  6. Paranoia is the word for those that be limited and are in charge, it really threatens all authoritarian types. It scares the living daylights out of Authority when words be used for others to communicate and never know the content, naturally it must be ‘bad’. It is the curse, and it undermines future relationships.
    There be an old story of a POW camp in Malaysia and the Guards be nice when their charges smiled and cursed, but when they the guards found out the meaning of the words used, then punishment reigned heavily for those that used the same smiling words. The answer be not the wood shed.

  7. xiaolongnu says

    Like KED, I am a Maine native and I remember hearing “Jacques et Pierre” jokes about the stupidity of Frenchmen. It really was a pervasive prejudice, even though everybody knew Francophone families and ate Acadian food (tourtiere, ployes, etc). Thank goodness we seem to be getting over it. I later encountered some of the same jokes as “Polish jokes” in Chicago.

  8. Re: le Français fait une rentrée
    In France, we would say: le français fait son comeback.
    (And, because I’m feeling particularly pedantic today, I have to point out that “français” only takes a capital F when referring to a person of French nationality.)

  9. I was hoping to hear from Maine natives; many thanks to those who have responded!
    “français” only takes a capital F when referring to a person of French nationality
    Yes, I guess I should have pointed this out, but I was so amazed they included the accents I let it pass.

  10. Richard Hershberger says

    I assumed when I first read Safire’s column that this was a failed attempt at a joke. I see, upon googling “fur ball”, that the phrase is indeed used for humane society fund raisers. Of course the pun only works (to the extent that it does work) because of the play off the medical phenomenon aka a hairball. So Safire seems to suppose that the social events are so well established that they have outshone the origin of their name: yet another confirmation of Safire’s tin ear.
    Mostly, though, this was one of Safire’s “I have nothing to say this week” columns. He devotes space in the New York Times to explain that “manifest” isn’t just an adjective: it can be a noun, too! Wowee!

  11. In fact, the word “french” is sometimes used to mean “backward” or “retarded”.
    That’s funny. Members of the (Carpathian) German minority in Eastern Slovakia are usually referred to as “Manták, pl. Mantáci”. In time, however, the word “manták” has also acquired the meaning of “idiot, retard”. The Roma in Central and Eastern Europe are referred to as “Cikán/Cigán/Cigány”. Over the years, this word and the verb derived therefrom (“cigániť/cigányozik”) has come to mean “liar, to lie”. Incidentally, both Carpathian German and Romani carried the same stigma.

  12. Interesting; yet another minority I wasn’t familiar with. But I understand this kind of prejudice better in Europe, where national groups have fought each other for centuries; in America (where the French actually were instrumental in establishing our independence and have been our allies in both world wars) it seems bizarre.

  13. Bizarre? You must be thinking Maine is American. It is not so strange to see this prejudice in Maine. Everyone knows how the francophones and anglophones get along in Canada – horribly.

  14. From Language Log:
    the French spreading into Maine is not only a foreign tongue, it’s Canadian (or Quebecois) imperial colonialism. And it’s not just French, it’s /Joual/, the dialect named for the antique pronunciation of /cheval/, for horse.
    The french spoken in Maine has nothing to do with either Quebecois or Joual. It’s Acadian.

  15. According to all the sources I’ve ever seen, Jack Kerouac spoke only French until age 6. Both parents were descendants of French-Canadian immigrants who came to Lowell. It’s possible that their ancestors did not speak French until they came to Canada but they definitely spoke French when they came to Lowell. In years of attending Lowell Celebrates Kerouac I’ve never heard the speculation that he or his parents spoke Breton — though I have heard plenty about how proud they were of their Breton heritage.

  16. John Emerson says

    My mistake. It was his distant ancestors who were Breton. I didn’t write clearly.

  17. LH,
    I thought you, as a resident of Massachusetts, might be aware of the anti-French Canadian prejudice in New England. As a New Hampshire native I can tell you that the anti-French Canadian prejudice in New Hampshire was just as strong as in Maine right up through the 1960s, if not beyond.
    As to why, well, Catholics were always viewed with deep suspicion and resentment in northern New England, maybe a hang-over from our English forebearers. Maybe the prejudice even goes back to the French and Indian wars of the 1760s, although that is probably a stretch. Certainly French Canadians were seen as sexually promiscuous, lazy, uncouth, primitive, too fond of alcohol, etc. – all the fears of the early 20th century American Protestant middle class made flesh. In fact one of the reasons Grace Metalious, the author of Petyon Place, was so reviled in New Hampshire was her French Canadian ancestry. If a proper Yankee had written the same book, people wouldn’t have been as upset.
    Your comment about “the French actually were instrumental in establishing our independence and have been our allies in both world wars” is beside the point. To most people in New Hampshire and Maine French Canadians and French from France were (are) not the same people at all. In my high school in the 1980s French was actually a popular language and my town was maybe 100 miles from the Quebec border. Not once did our teachers ever suggest visiting Quebec to practice our French, tuning into a Quebec radio broadcast or reading a Montreal paper, nor did we ever learn anything about Quebec culture. The attitude among local Francophiles was that Quebecois was a degraded language not worthy of our attention and that any exposure to Joual would be harmful.
    The good news is that these attitudes seem to have faded a lot, prejudice against French Canadians seems to have disappeared, and people of French Canadian ancestry can claim to be more “real New Hampshire” than all the newcomers from Massachusetts or elsewhere. Nowadays people are concerned about Spanish and the Mexicans.

  18. Wow. I had no idea of any of that. Not only is Massachusetts not really a part of the Quebec-despising region as far as I can tell, I’m a recent immigrant and still learning the folkways. (I’ve started watching Red Sox games on NESN, so that’s a start.)

  19. Oh, Monsieur Hat! You have much to learn of the folkways of our Commonwealth. 🙂 May I recommend the New England Encyclopedia? Also, check out the poems of Lowell poet Paul Marion (of French-Canadian descent and a native Lowellian).
    When I was growing up in the streetcar suburbs of Boston in the 50s and 60s the French-Canadians had their own parishes with Mass in French, their own bilingual schools, and their own festivals but we non-French were always welcome at the kermesse. There may have been boasting and bravado and stuff but the various brands of Catholics didn’t seem to do much actual despising. Irish and Italian boys beating each other up doesn’t count as despising. 🙂 I don’t remember anybody beating up the Frenchies — but we did call them Frenchies — because they were vastly superior at pond hockey and sandlot softball.

  20. Spotted and Herbaceous Backson says

    From across the continent, I remember hearing an older Tlingit man tell how when he was young, he would get punished for speaking his native language on the school grounds, so he would jump up in the air and say it, or hang from a tree, thus being technically not on the ground…

  21. In response to my Language Log post, Adjusting writes:
    The french spoken in Maine has nothing to do with either Quebecois or Joual. It’s Acadian.
    The “Joual” comment was from Jim Gordon, not me. From what I’ve read, “Joual” is not terribly well-defined, but some do identify it with various Franco-American dialects including those spoken in Maine. (The Encarta definition of “joual” specifically mentions Maine.) This article delves deeper into the problematic usage of “joual” as applied to Franco-American French. The writer argues that “French-Canadians who immigrated to New England in the 19th century surely brought along some joual with their patois.”
    As for the Acadian influence on Maine French, I found this article interesting. A 1962 study by Genevieve Massignon is cited: “Massignon concluded that the French of the Upper St. John Valley (Maine and New Brunswick) was a mixed, relatively Canadianized speech in comparison to that of surrounding Acadian settlement areas. Massignon found most Maritimes Acadian communities to be ‘purely Acadian’ in their origins and their present-day speechways. The St. John Valley, by contrast, she found to be a mixed zone (half Acadian, half French-Canadian), where speechways reflected a blend of Acadian and French-Canadian vocabulary and phonetics, and a predominantly French-Canadian morphology.”
    So the situation with Maine French seems a lot more complicated than simple labels like “Joual” or “Acadian”.

  22. My stepfather is ABC (American-born Chinese) and spoke Chinese in the home until he got to be school age. This was in the 1950s, in Seattle, and school officials told his parents (who were born in China) that he should only speak English from now on, even inside the home. This was the official line back then–the idea being that if the child spoke another tongue at home, he would never properly learn English–and the results were tragic. My step-grandfather never learned a great deal of English, and as he grew older, he forgot what he did know. Meanwhile, not one of his five sons could speak more than a handful of words in Chinese. Near the end of my step-grandfather’s life, when he wanted most to communicate with his children, it became almost impossible for him to do so. This scenario was repeated in countless Asian-American families across the city–and, I expect, across the country, as well.

  23. I can’t tell you how mad that makes me. The combination of ignorance and arrogance with power is never a good thing.

  24. John Emerson says

    I’ve known people who were cut off from their grandparents, but never from parents before.
    The Chinese respect for education can go to extremes.

  25. I have heard Italian and Russian/Polish Jewish immigrants tell the same story, but in their case it was usually a voluntary decision of the parents, not government intervention. My great-grandmother was the same way. Apparently she was a talented language acquirer who could speak “every dialect of Italian” fluently (my family’s exaggeration but certainly Lombard, Marchigiano, Sicilian, Napolitano, Calabrese and whatever else was spoken in New Britain, CT in the early 1900s.) But she and my great grandfather refused to speak Italian to their kids, even though my great grandfather never learned to speak English very well. Ironically the authorities inflict tremendous pain to ensure people do what they probably would have done anyway.

  26. Well, yes, on the other end of the spectrum, my father’s parents–both Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe–made a conscious decision not to teach their children Yiddish, in order to have a language in which they could conduct their fights without the kids understanding. Needless to say, my father and uncle may not have become fluent in Yiddish, but they certainly learned all the good insults!

  27. Oh, and LH, it feels weird to thank someone for their anger, but… yeah, thanks.

  28. Jimmy Ho says

    Madness? Anger?
    Here; I can barely breathe:
    Pour éviter que cette mesure n’entraîne un appel d’air de nouveaux immigrants clandestins, le ministère de l’Intérieur pose trois conditions très strictes à cette régularisation. Il faut d’abord que l’enfant soit né en France, qu’il y ait effectué toute sa scolarité et ne parle pas la langue de son pays d’origine.

  29. Stories like these are quite common around the world. Maori kids in New Zealand in the ’50s and ’60s were often punished for speaking Maori in school and even pressured to change their names. Also, many Maori families, after moving to the cities, made a conscious decision to not pass on Maori language and culture to their children. I’ve heard of similar things happening around the world. What should give us hope is the possibility for linguistic and cultural renaissance, and again the Maori are a good example.

  30. John Emerson says

    I’ve been told that France will not register Breton given names.

  31. Jimmy Ho says

    I don’t think that’s currently true, John. Back in the 70s and 80s, the problem was toponyms (Breton nationalists would “correct” the French names of towns and villages by spray painting the “original” ones), but I seem to recall that this has been settled (I think both names are now inscribed on the signs, like in Scotland).
    The teaching of Breton (in the Diwan private schools network) is still a heated topic, though.

  32. crowbaraz says

    I dimly remember from my elementary education in Texas history a distinction once drawn between persons who called and felt themselves to be “Spanish” and a different (lesser) class of people who were “Mexican”. I don’t remember if time on the ground in the New World was necessarily part of the dividing line, but there was definitely the implication that any mixture of Indian blood put one in the “Mexican” class.
    Things I wonder if someone out there knows, provided both my memory and my grade-school teachers were accurate:
    -Is this division still in effect in some form, here and in Mexico?
    -Is there a linguistic aspect to it?
    -How does it compare to the “French” vs. “French-Canadian” thing?
    Mr. Hat, sir, I’m a long-time lurker, admirer, and hat-wearer. Thanks much for the site!

  33. I grew up in eastern Connecticut in an area of decaying mill towns, and the anti-French prejudice was definitely present, if not very strong. French Canadians had come down during the war to work in the mills.
    I live in Missouri now and only recently learned that some descendants of the early French settlers in the southeast part of the state spoke French at home into the 1960s. Apparently it was a very peculiar dialect, full of rustic local slang. There is a dissertation about it somewhere, based on fieldwork done in the 60s.

  34. Jimmy H, my French is just about rusted solid, so it took me a while to finish that article, but: Dag, people are stupid sometimes. Really, obnoxiously dumb. Grrr!

  35. John Emerson says

    French was a fairly common language when Minnesota became a state ca. 1860. There are still a few counties up north where French is spoken. Minnesota is far from any predominantly-French area of Canada, but I think that a lot of Quebecois headed west to get away from the Brits. A bishop in Quebec sent a priest to MN late in the XIXc, but I don’t have the documentation available on that.
    There are many French names still around. The house (or lot) I live in was first owned by one de Rossier.

  36. Dan Blum says

    To me a “fur ball” is an air battle with lots of planes, since “hairball” is the term I use for cat productions (actually, now that I think about it, the military term is generally written “furball”). Of course that’s a somewhat dated meaning (modern air combat being rather different from the WWII variety), but Safire is still nuts.

  37. John Emerson says
  38. Interesting stuff, thanks!
    There are still a few native French speakers remaining in Missouri. I collected an ancient French folktale from the late Pete Boyer in 1998 in Creole French. Lloyd Lalamondier, Roy Boyer, and others are still playing old-time French fiddle tunes for local French square dancers. Natalie Villmer, along with a dedicated group of young singers, still sing ancient French ballads. During the last couple of decades, there has been a flourishing of French heritage festivals, historical reenactments, genealogical study, historical preservation activities, and all sorts of local history research in Missouri. Such cultural expressions promote and affirm local French identity.
    One of the most amazing examples of French cultural persistence in Missouri and Illinois involves La Guillonnée, an ancient New Year’s Eve custom. Having ancient Celtic roots, La Guillonnée is a ritual of great antiquity. It belongs to a set of similar European and Euro-American mumming rituals that includes La Chandeleur, practiced in the French Canadian Maritimes; Mardi Gras, as practiced in rural southwest Louisiana; the Scottish Hogmanay; the Spanish Agillando; and various Carnival fêtes of the Caribbean. La Guillonnée is both a particular song text, of which there are a number of variants, as well as a performance re-enacted each year by costumed revelers as they visit from place to place on New Year’s Eve. Their song, accompanied by fiddle and punctuated by dance, begs for slabs of pork backbone and for the hands of eligible daughters. Drink and frolic is what they receive.
    La Guillonnée was practiced in Upper Louisiana long before the Louisiana Purchase, and it was encountered during Lewis and Clark’s famous journey of the Corps of Discovery…
    This custom continues today in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. Kent Bealne of Old Mines is currently producing a CD featuring a variety of versions of the song. Today, La Guillonnée is growing in popularity and retrenching as a powerful symbol of local Creole French identity.

  39. I think (Uncle) Vanya pretty much made the point – these things happened across New England. I was going to mention Barre, VT, which has a very large Quebecois population (who were mainly brought in as scabs after the Italian quarry workers went on strike) which has almost completely lost its French in one generation. Kids my age (born in 1976) might know a couple swears, and most did not know the French pronounciations of their own last names, eg. Lefevre was pronounced Leeferboo and Levesque Levesk-queue. Pretty amazing.
    The KMT did pretty brutal things to suppress the Taiwanese language in Taiwan schools after getting kicked out of China. One of my friends told me about getting fined as a second-grader for using the Taiwanese word for tomato (which, incidentally, is “tomato”).

  40. Leeferboo? Really? I thought I’d seen it all as far as deformed anglicization goes, but that takes the cake.
    And yes, I taught college in Taiwan in the ’70s and well remember the oppression of the native Taiwanese — it’s great that’s changed in recent years.

  41. As it so happens, Minnesota also has at least two french immersion schools. I had a friend who went to one for grade school, and my aunt (who is French) sends her kids to another.

  42. As a Maine native, I can confirm a slight anti-French bias here. However, the cities that were cited in the article are northern border cities. Here in the southern part of Maine (esp. tourist areas)- most people are very tolerant of the French language – in fact, many of our road signs have slight translations (example: Exit 5/Sortie 5) and many savvy business owners hire at least one fluent French speaker (many signs/adverts state “Nous Parlons Francais”).

  43. US is English speaking country..
    it is so at this time and it will be so in future and forever..
    If you do not like about that just move to Paris and you will experience riots every week…

  44. Jimmy Ho says

    Every week? You should them me where it’s at, ’cause I haven’t seen one since last November. My perception must be impaired for not being an USAan Supahman.

  45. Re: Leeferboo, that’s just my approximation of how Lefevre is pronounced. Sorry I’ve completely forgotten all my IPA.
    I did go to school with a guy named Mike Gadwah, who was Quebecois. I assume that his name was originally something like Gadois but I’ve never heard of a Quebec name (and let’s face it, there are like ten family names in the whole province) that fit.
    Great blog, by the way.

  46. Slightly OT – Mark is right: ‘Paranoid teachers are naturally threatened by pupils having another channel of communication.’
    In France right now, my anglophone nephews (fluent in French) are reprimanded for speaking English in the playground. The older nephew (now aged 12) was marked down in a report because ‘il a encore la tendence de parler anglais avec Sophie.’ The younger nephew knows better.

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