PEORIA — Though Dennis Stroughmatt estimates that there are only about 15 people alive who still speak the French dialect spoken by Illinois and Missouri’s earliest non-native settlers, sometimes he gets surprised.
“About three years ago we were playing at a festival in Old Mines, Mo., and this old man walks up to me and starts singing in French,” said Stoughmatt during a telephone interview from his home in Albion, Ill., on Monday. “He’s about 80, and I’m understanding every word. I asked him where he learned that, and he said, ‘I learned it from my mom.’”
The man hadn’t spoke the language for about 20 years, ever since his mother died. He hadn’t grown up in the Old Mines area, where a cluster of people still speak the language — he’d grown up in St. Charles, Mo.
“His parents had moved out of the community before he was born. His dad worked in a factory and his mom stayed home and spoke French with the kids. He was an educated man — I think he worked in insurance. You wouldn’t see it coming at all — and all of a sudden here rolls out this perfect Missouri-Illinois French.”
As Stroughmatt visited with the man, another person joined the conversation, and pretty soon a crowd formed around the French-speaking trio. Spectators started taking pictures.
“I thought, ‘Oh, man, this is a moment.’ It’s kind of cool when you get three people speaking that language,” said Stroughmatt. “The man said, ‘This is my language, and I don’t have anybody to talk it with anymore.'”
Stroughmatt will be speaking Missouri-Illinois French and singing traditional songs during a visit to the Peoria Public Library North Branch from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15.
Missouri-Illinois French is a term used for a specific dialect that has persevered in the region since French immigrants settled here in the late 1600s. It differs from Cajun French, which came from south-central France, said Stroughmatt. Missouri-Illinois French, and music, has a more celtic bent because it came from the area of Normandy and Brittany.
“Cajun music also ends up with a lot of influences from Louisiana that we don’t get here — they get the German and Czech influences. They adapted the accordion and incorporated polkas. This is stuff that doesn’t come into the French communities here. Our music has a purity going all the way back to France.”
It’s likely that Missouri-Illinois French was once spoken in Peoria, which was populated by French settlers until they were chased out by the British during the War of 1812.
“A lot of those people floated down the river to Cahokia, and some went to St. Louis,” said Stroughmatt. “Some of the words and songs I do I learned in Cahokia, so it’s very possible that some of the descendants once lived in Peoria.”
Stroughmatt learned about Illinois’ French population while growing up in southern Illinois.
“Growing up near Vincennes is what got me into it,” said Stroughmatt. “We used to go there a lot.”
When he was a teenager, his grandfather gave him his great-grandfather's fiddle, and Stroughmatt became fascinated with the traditional French music played by some musicians in the area. When he was in college a professor told Stroughmatt about the French-speaking community in southern Missouri. At that time there was a pocket of several hundred people who still spoke the language.
“I went down there and ended up hunting people down. I spent weeks at a time, and summers, learning to play fiddle with some of the old French Creole fiddlers,” said Stroughmatt, who in the process became fluent in the old language. He went on to earn degrees in history and historic preservation, and learned how to read and write in French during a six-month intensive in Quebec.
“And they didn’t even try to change the way I spoke. They said, ‘You sound like some of the really old people here,’” said Stroughmatt. “There are some pockets in Quebec where people speak like we do here. In a sense, they are using third- and fourth-century French.”
Over the years linguists have made their way to southern Missouri to study the language and count how many speakers remained. Stroughmatt began learning the language at a pivotal time, and today he finds himself charged with the task of helping keep the dialect and music alive. In 2012 he was asked to perform with his band, L’Esprit Creole, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., during the Homegrown Concert Series, which celebrates the best traditional music throughout the country.
“There are some people who don’t think Missouri-Illinois French fiddling is unique at all — I had one fiddle player who came up and blatantly said that, and I’m like, ‘I appreciate your point, but the Library of Congress sees it differently,’” he said, “Our bowing style, our fingering style, our rhythm is all different.”
Though Stroughmatt is a bit reluctant in his role as an ambassador of a culture he wasn’t born into, he’s glad he can show the world its value.
“A lot of people growing up in the community were told their music and their language were worthless, but because I existed they found the retribution they deserve. It’s unique, and people do care about it.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.