A correspondent has proposed an interesting question:

I am trying to find out about communities in the US/Canada that have historically been non-English speaking and are still hanging on to their native tongue (no matter how tenuous that grip may be). For languages like French, German, or Sorbian, this is easy enough using Ethnologue or the Census data—because immigration from those language groups dried up many years ago, any community that still speaks one of them must be “historic”. However, for tongues like Russian, Spanish, Chinese, or Japanese, it’s impossible to distinguish which are the areas of historical usage, and which are just full of recent immigrants. Do you know any resources on the internet that could help me out?

Just by way of clarification:
1.) For the purposes of this research, I am not interested in languages that are native to North America.
2.) By historic, I mean any place that a.) has been speaking that language since at least the 19th century, and b.) where the language maintenance is the result of it being handed down in that community, rather than a result of continual immigration of people of that tongue. For example, even though San Francisco would be considered a historically Chinese-speaking city, I am not interested in it because it continues to attract Chinese-speaking immigrants. However, I would be interested in a place where Chinese people came in the 19th century, the immigration from China dried up, but the language has been maintained.

So: any suggestions?


  1. The Chinese language was healthy in Portland in the 50’s and 60’s, as I recall. Since then there’s been a lot of immigration, but at that time it was mostly old Chinese families. The old Chinese families and the recent immigrants from China are distinct groups speaking mostly different dialects (the old Chinese speak Chaozhou Cantonese, the new ones are mostly Mandarin or Hong Kong Cantonese.)
    To my knowledge, in Minnesota German and the Scandinavian languages have disappeared, though they were reasonably common 50 years ago in my youth. Likewise for French, which was a factor in 1850, and Dutch in Northern Iowa.
    The exception in Minnesota is Hutterites or Amish, but I do not believe that they are long-time Minnesota inhabitants. Likewise, the Russian colonies in Oregon, which are keeping their language, were started mostly in the 1950’s (a few in the 1920’s). The Oregon Russians are Molokans, Old Believers, and Pentacostals.
    I have read that there were French towns on the Mississippi in Illinois until the early 20th century. However, my understanding is that French is fading both in Louisiana and New England.

  2. Greater Boston seems to have a couple of cases that blur your definitions.
    The Armenian community in Watertown dates from the late 19th century through the 1915 genocide. As far as I know, it has been linguistically healthy continuously since then. But it isn’t closed because there was a wave from Lebanon’s civil war in the 70s and another from the breakup of the USSR in the 90s. So, unlike San Francisco, there were dry spells. Since we aren’t in one right now, does it not count?
    The Portuguese community in Somerville and Fall River / New Bedford is from the continent. So far as I know, there has not been any significant immigration from Portugal since the fishing boom of the 19th century. (There were family ties, of course, like in the Italian-American community. Maybe coastal just isn’t going to work for your needs.) However, there were immigrants from the Azores in the 70s and 80s and Brazil and Cape Verde more recently. This may give some reinforcement, but Continential Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese are often classified as separate languages. The local newspapers are mostly distinct. You can get Brazilian soap operas everywhere, but you can get them in Portugal too.

  3. Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia has two such communities that might be of interest. Gaelic was spoken by over 100,000 people in NS by 1900, but now there are only a few hundred native speakers, the vast majority in Cape Breton. The language is hanging on, barely, in several small communities. Another example from Cape Breton is Acadian French. The Acadians have been there for centuries and have maintained a dialect quite different from the French of the Quebecois. In the Cape Breton communities of Cheticamp and Isle Madame, Acadian French is still the main language of daily discourse for plenty of people.

  4. There have been a number of long-lasting Welsh-speaking communities in the USA (from the late 17th century), particularly in Pennsylvania. I don’t know whether Welsh is still in daily use in any of these areas, however.
    On the 19th century, check out the book by William Jones, _Wales in America: Scranton and the Welsh 1860-1920_.
    On the web:
    There are Welsh American and WElsh Studies organisations which might be able to help you

  5. German-speakers were also in Texas, link here
    Japanese did not begin immigration until the very end of the 19th century, so any communities would be stretching the limitations that you listed.
    This on Basque in the Western US might also be of interest, but the community may be supplemented by immigration.

  6. This is great stuff — I might have thought of some of them eventually, but certainly not all; I knew about the Portuguese community in Fall Reev, but I didn’t realize the layered complexity. Thanks, everybody; I’m sure my correspondent is appreciating the help!

  7. I didn’t expect LH to put my email up on his blog, but I am glad he did. Thanks to everyone for the great info. It should be noted that I am an amateur, and my interest in this subject is purely a hobby. My email to LH was the first time I had tried to define exactly what it is I am interested in–I had previously taken a terribly inefficient “I’ll know it when I see it” approach. So, the “rules” set forth are hardly etched in stone. The posts thus far have been perfect.
    If I may ask a follow-up question: What about Spanish? Few areas of the US are untouched by Latino immigration, but I wonder if, for example, there any isolated towns in the Southwest where Spanish has historically been the primary language?
    John Emerson: you might be interested in this link about French language and traditions in Old Mines, Missouri:

  8. For Texas German, see also Hans Boas’ great site: http://www.tgdp.org.
    No one has mentioned Native American reservations yet, although many surely also come under the definition of “historically non-English-speaking communities who are holding onto their language”. SSILA.org probably has links.

  9. There’s still a hefty population of Ukrainian speakers in and around Edmonton (the joke growing up was that we lived in Admonchuk). Vegreville is especially famous for it, since they have the world’s largest pysanka.
    has a little bit of info.

  10. I’m glad this topic came up, because I ended up looking up a favorite Spanish dictionary, “A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish,” by Ruben Cobos, and now that I have, I see that there is a new edition:
    Revised Dictionary of San Luis Valley Spanish
    The variety of Spanish described in the book is fascinating, and has a very long history indeed. Highly recommended.

  11. There are a lot of French place names and family names in Minnesota, which was French up until 1803 even though not really settled. The people with French name I grew up with were salt-of-the-earth countryfolk who only spoke English and weren’t always even Catholic. I’d love to see a history of the French in the American West.
    I visited friends in Alamosa Colorado in 1975. They were very conscious of their Spanish past and old land claims were still remembered. There had been a small uprising during the 60’s trying to reactivate the claims (against the Forest Service.) The people I knew were bilingual but the older generation only knew Spanish, I think.

  12. There are still rumoured to be outposts of German in the Kitchener/Waterloo area of Ontario.

  13. Let me add the proudly Czech community of Clarkson, Nebraska: http://www.ci.clarkson.ne.us

  14. Richard Hershberger says

    I wouldn’t necessarily assume that German immigration has dried up. My church, in Baltimore, is bilingual German-English. Most–but not all–of the German speakers are immigrants. All or nearly all speak English as well. Does this count? On the other hand, the church has run a German language school since the early 19th century specifically to maintain the culture. When I lived in Philadelphia I belonged to a similar church, so it isn’t just Baltimore. (Both, by the way, provide the fringe benefit of terrific food at church suppers: mmm… sauerbraten…)

  15. My spouse grew up in Elko NV and she says that the Basque community there probably meets the criteria in the communication at the beginning of the post. She noted that occasionally Basque from Elko go back to Spain for a visit but she does not know of any who came from Spain to Elko. One can find more information by Googling for Basque and Elko NV.

  16. The area around Galva and Kewanee, Illinois still has many families descended from the Swedes of Central and Western Sweden. There’s a “historical community” –a farming village called Bishop Hill which was set up as a commune in the late 1800’s. There are still craft, culture, history, dance, and even language classes there, though most of the young people have never learned the Swedish. I learned a few phrases from an old farmer I tended in a nursing home as a youth. Apparently it’s very formal, “frozen in time” kind of Swedish.
    I had thought our European ancestors had killed off all the First Peoples in Illinois, but recently I was surprised and intrigued to learn there is a community of Mesquakie, or Sauk and Fox, in Tama County in Iowa. There’s a “house of game” there. I drove over there a winter ago, but wasn’t able to do more than reconnoitre the area. Seems many Mexicans live there now. Don’t know anything about the state of the language.
    Would like to learn more about these, if anyone knows.

  17. Ray Young Bear, a Mequaki of Tama, writes poetyr in English and Mesquaki. His book I’ve seen is “The Winter of the Salamander”. Very interesting guy, and a Google will find you some good stuff by and about him.

  18. RE: “For example, even though San Francisco would be considered a historically Chinese-speaking city, I am not interested in it because it continues to attract Chinese-speaking immigrants.”
    To the “correspondent”:
    If you’re insisting the immigration having taken place in the 19th century then yes, eliminate San Francisco. However, if it is only the recent wave of immigration you want to exclude and don’t mind some earlier 20th century immigrant families, then San Francisco might be worthwhile….
    REason being that most of recent Chinese immigration has been Mandrin speakers, whereas most earlier Chinese in California were Cantonese speakers. So, if you go to SF and ignore all the Mandrin, you will be closer to finding what you’re looking for. One way to help you differentiate between earlier and later Chinese communities and the Chinese they speak is by the Chinese characters they use. Most recent immigrants are from the PRC and will use simplified characters. When the US and China opened relations again in the 70’s and the People’s DAily wanted to spread its influence among the Chinese community, it started publishing a special edition with orthodox Chinese characters – it had to in order to reach those who could read the language but were not from the PRC.
    I’m not ethnically Chinese, but growing up in California we still learned some… thing was, before Sino-American relations got going again we said “Kung Hay Fat Choy” on Chinese New Year, and that was a Cantonese expression. That and other Cantonese expressions seem to have faded away and been replaced by Mandrin ones.
    There will be Hong Kong immigrants (who speak Cantonese) in SF, to, but still, most people who fled HK went to Vancouver, not SF.
    Outside of SF you might want to look at places like Nevada City and Chinese Camp. Obviously there aren’t big Chinese populations there anymore, but the man who officiated at my wedding was 4th generation Chinese-American and had grown up in Nevada City. Dig around real hard and you will be able find Chinese-Americans from the nether regions of rual Californian who might know something. I suggest you also ask at the ethnic studies dept at U of Calif at Berkeley.
    The only 5th generation Californian I know is Japanese-American. There are few “Japanese-American” churches around these days – most of them realized they didn’t have enough Japanese speakers to justify the name and were doing most of their activities in English. ie, there really hasn’t been enough Japanese immigration to California (maybe LA, but at least places like SF and San Jose) to keep the language fresh. Nevertheless, many 3,4,5th generation Japanese-Americans still know certain household words in Japanese. I suggest you talk to the Japanese American Citizens League (http://www.jacl.org/). A great org with a great history, sorta like the NAACP.
    As evidenced in the case of the “first generation” woman implicated as “Tokyo Rose” who had to (re?) learn Japanese while in Japan, many Japanese immigrants made a serious effort to raise their children as “good Americans” and therefore often did not maintain the language as long as many in the Chinese immmigrant community.

  19. Artem Vakhitov says

    I believe there are also Russian Old Believers somewhere in USA or Canada. Their Russian is beautifully pure; I heard it when a group of them came to visit St. Petersburg some years ago.

  20. John Cowan says

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