We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, January 17, 2014

What We Are Losing

A recent news posting on Aljazeera America entitled, "Missouri's paw-paw French dialect fading into silence," describes the demise of an old, old American French dialect also known as Missouri French, which was spoken in the region around St. Louis.  Today, there are no fluent speakers of paw-paw French still living and few that can speak even a little of it.  Descended from the time when the region was part of New France, paw-paw French was a people's language that apparently wasn't written down or taught formally in schools.  It came to be considered a low-class language spoken only by ignorant people, which seems to be an important reason why it has all but died out.  People, esp. younger people, did not want to be labelled as backward by the fact that they spoke paw-paw French, and evidently parents often discouraged their children from learning it for the same reason.

In one sense, it is a little silly to get all sentimental about the loss of a dialect that has apparently lost its reason-for-being.  It has been centuries since Missouri was a part of New France.  People naturally use the language that best fits their social and cultural needs, and English was that language, especially as native language speakers of English flooded into the Mississippi Valley after the Louisiana Purchase.

On the other hand, when a language or a dialect dies away something important is lost with that death. In a posting from March 2012, entitled, "Learning to Speak Sami," I wrote, "There is more at stake than the loss of just [a] language. Language is a primary carrier of culture, and where a language is dying away it is certain that a culture is dying as well—ways of dressing, eating, and living together in a unique society. Cultural diversity is important because it maintains the richness of human life."  Culturally speaking, Missouri and the U.S. are just a little poorer culturally for the loss of paw-paw French.  A piece of our living history, stored in the memories and experiences of people is lost.  A living link to the past is lost, and the void is not filled by the sound recordings and video tapes collected by scholars.  Stories and songs have lost their meaning and remain only curiosities for non-native language speakers where they are preserved at all.

This kind of loss has always been a part of our cultural experience.  Old English morphed into Middle English, which morphed into something else.  The dialects of American English spoken back in the 1920s, the 1950s are dying away.  When I refer to something as "mickey mouse," even young adults in their 20s and 30s haven't a clue as to what I mean.  Still the loss of a whole dialect is lamentable.  We are poorer for it.

For photographs from Old Mines, Missouri, which is the center for the few people who still speak paw-paw French, see a posting entitled, "La Fête de l'Automne 2012 and Missouri French."