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Illinois Country French is effectively a dead language, but some are trying to keep the Illinois Creole culture alive

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Courtesy Dennis Stroughmatt
Dennis Stroughmatt
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Peoria, and Illinois as a whole, were once a part of New France. While most of that colonial legacy has faded away, remnants of the Illinois Creole culture still linger in some remote parts of the former French colonial territory.

Fiddler and historian Dennis Stroughmatt may be one of the last living speakers of Illinois Country French, also known as Missouri French. A native of southeastern Illinois, he is descended from French Creole settlers out of Vincennes, Ind.

"I just kind of got very, very interested, you know, in that part of our heritage as a teenager," he said.

He learned the language after he was directed to a remote village in Missouri back in the 1990s, where the language was then still widely spoken among older people.

"I started going out in the communities, and met a lot of the folks there, and I was fascinated. And then I heard our French language spoken," he said. "Not just English with a few French words and broken accents. Real French."

Stroughmatt immersed himself in the village to soak in the culture, music, and the language.

"[They] would kind of challenge you. If you wanted to eat, you had to ask for it in French," Stroughmatt said. "And they weren't kidding. I'd stay there a couple days, and I'd starve if I didn't know...I had to learn how to say things in our local French."

But in the past three decades, the language has almost completely fallen out of use.

"Now there's probably under 10 people that can...you know, it's effectively basically a dead language," he said.

Stroughmatt said Illinois Creole language and culture are neither French Canadian nor Cajun, but somewhere in between.

Stroughmatt has arranged language workshops in an effort to teach new generations the unique strain of French he picked up, but he said it's hard for someone to learn a language without being fully immersed in it.

That doesn't necessarily mean the end of Illinois Creole culture, however.

"Culture's not just language. Culture is food. Culture is gatherings. Culture is good music, dance," he said.

Stroughmatt is giving a free virtual presentation, “Illinois Creoles, French Canadians, and Louisiana Cajuns: A Continental Story,” Thursday at 6:30 p.m. with the Chillicothe Public Library.