Pawpaw French.

My wife called immediately after driving off to do some shopping to tell me to turn on the radio — NPR was doing a language story. It turned out to be this one, about a French dialect that’s quickly disappearing in southeastern Missouri:

Pawpaw French — named after a local fruit-bearing tree — is a linguistic bridge that melds a Canadian French accent with a Louisiana French vocabulary. The French originally settled Old Mines around 1723, back when the area was part of upper Louisiana. Floods of workers from Canada and Louisiana came to work the lead mines.

The dialect faded in other nearby towns like De Soto and Bonne Terre and Ste. Genevieve a long time ago. Pawpaw French persisted in Old Mines because it is much more remote.

Historian and musician Dennis Stroughmatt is pawpaw French’s ambassador to the outside world. He first visited Old Mines back in the 1990s for a class project while a student at Southeast Missouri State University. At the time, there were hundreds of pawpaw speakers there.

Just like that, he was hooked.

At the link, you can read the whole story or listen to it (it’s fun to hear the dialect spoken), and for those of you with JSTOR access, here‘s W.M. Miller’s 1930 French Review article on it.


  1. Here’s an interview with Stroughmatt from 2004:

  2. What fruit-bearing tree is this referring to? In Australia a pawpaw is a papaya, but the story seems to imply it was nothing so mundane.

  3. John Burgess says

    @Bathrobe: Pawpaw ( is a fruit native to the eastern and midwestern US. It’s related to custard apple, cherimoya, soursop, and other members of the Annonaceae that are mostly tropical. It’s not at all related to papaya, though it appears that they’re synonymous in at least parts of Australia.

  4. And here’s a very recent Courrier International translation of an Al Jazeera America article on the same subject (original here).

  5. Yes, pawpaw is papaya in my family (Australia) and probably for lots of older, colonial-era Britons. It may have gawn out in the 70s or 80s in Britain as pawpaws started appearing, labelled “papaya”, in British shops.

  6. Where, oh where, oh where is Susie . . . Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch . . . pickin’ up paw-paws, putting’ em in your pockets . . . Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch

    – The paw-paw patch song

  7. There’s a tiny town in West Virginia called Paw Paw. I’m pretty sure they don’t speak any kind of French there.

  8. And here’s a very recent Courrier International translation of an Al Jazeera America article on the same subject

    Thanks for that, I learned a new French idiom, s’éteindre à petit feu (Google turned up the self-explanatory “il vaut mieux brûler franchement que s’éteindre à petit feu”).

  9. I have finally got to this thread! Very interesting and moving. Thanks to all who provided references. A very common situation: minority children given a hard time in school will not transmit their language to their own children.

    s’éteindre à petit feu

    I am not familiar with this phrase as a single unit, but s’éteindre has long been a common metaphor for ‘to die’, used in obituaries, for instance. Eteindre by iself is the transitive verb meaning “to extinguish’, and s’éteindre refers to the spontaneous process of a fire or light dying out. A petit feu refers to a slow fire rather than a small one.

  10. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

  11. John Emerson says

    According to Kenneth Rexroth, ca. 1915-20 there were still French-speaking towns in northern Indiana and Illinois, Vincennes (an old French fort) being one.

  12. J. W. Brewer says gives one guy’s account of the Missouri Francophone enclave, particularly noting the assimilative impact of young men being conscripted into the military (with the notion that having been thus forcibly removed from the enclave, they became more aware of the wider world and might not voluntarily return to the enclave after being discharged), and perhaps more sadly noting that the local Roman Catholic diocese at some point along the way stopped supplying the historically-Francophone parish with Francophone clergy,* although it doesn’t seem (admittedly easy for me to say after the fact) like it would have been impossible for them to reach out to dioceses in Louisiana or Quebec for a new priest when the cure fell vacant.

    *It’s a bit odd because the interviewee makes it sound like the “sacraments” were switched from French to English at a time when they would primarily have been done in Latin (a nicely level playing field as between Anglophones and Francophones), but of course even then the priest’s vernacular-language capabilities were highly relevant to e.g. what language sermons would be preached in or confessions heard in.

  13. J. W. Brewer says

    Turns out there’s a Paw Paw, Michigan (in Paw Paw Township, on the banks of the Paw Paw River), which is part of the odd backstory to an oddly-titled track on the first Brian Eno LP:

  14. Synchronicity. I don’t remember ever noticing the word ‘pawpaw’ until this evening when I watched The Jungle Book with my daughter:

    Now when you pick a pawpaw
    Or a prickly pear
    And you prick a raw paw
    Next time beware
    Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw
    When you pick a pear
    Try to use the claw
    But you don’t need to use the claw
    When you pick a pear of the big pawpaw
    Have I given you a clue ?
    -Bare Necessities

    I wondered vaguely about it, then a couple of hours later I find it being discussed at the Hattery.

  15. I knew the word “paw-paw” mainly from the song mentioned by GeorgeW above, but had no clue that it was etymologically related to “papaya”.

  16. That’s “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.”

  17. John Emerson: My grandfather grew up in northern Indiana and Illinois in that era, and he said there were French-speaking towns in the area (Bourbonnais, pronounced “bur BONus,” was one he mentioned). I believe these were settled by Quebecois immigrants in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

  18. John Emerson says

    When Minnesota became a state the population was reported as 5% “French”. However, “French” was sometimes meant “Indian” and I think that these were French speakers of mixed race, recognized as Metis in Canada.

    There is still a town with some French speakers in Minnesota. Red Lake Falls was first settled by French speakers from Upper Canada, thouigh at an earlier period it had been part of the oxcart trail between Pembina (Metis) and St Paul.

    I used to know a French-surnamed guy from Little Falls, one of the oldest towns in the state, who spoke as though there were enough French-Americans there for there to be a bit of prejudice. I grew up 40 miles away and there were always a few French-surnamed people around, but they weren’t regarded as a group.

  19. John Emerson says


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