A Footnote on the French Language in the Old Northwest
Robert L. Hall

[Printed with the permission of the author. All rights reserved]

         It is impossible to utilize French colonial documents as historical sources without understanding the penchant of the French of the time to use nicknames even in formal legal papers. Colonial Ste-Geneviève, now our St. Genevieve, Missouri, was also known as Misère or "poverty," and St. Louis itself was known to many as Paincourt, said to mean "short on bread." The principle of homophony or sound resemblance can be used to derive the French nickname Louis Constant for Prairie du Chien, for many years a place of rendezvous for traders on the Mississippi just above the mouth of the Wisconsin River. L'ouisconsin (The Wisconsin) became Louisconstant or Louis Constant (steadfast Louis).
        Juliette Kinzie, author of the 1856 travel narrative Waubun, wrote that in her day "...a peculiarity of the voyageurs is their fancy for transforming the names of their bourgeois [employer] into something funny, which resembles it in sound. Thus, Kinzie would be called by one 'Quinze nez' (fifteen noses), by another 'Singé' (monkeyfied). Mr. Kercheval was denominated Mons. Court-cheval (short horse), the Judge of Probate, 'le Juge Trop- bête' (too foolish), etc." She then gave the following as an example in point:

         Mr. Shaw, one of the agents of the Northwest Fur Company, had passed many years on the frontier, and was by the voyageurs called Monsieur Le Chat [Mr. Cat]. On quitting the Indian country he married a Canadian lady and became the father of several children. Some years after his return to Canada, his old foreman, named Louis la Liberté, went to Montreal to spend the winter. He had heard of his old bourgeois' mar riage, and was anxious to see him.
         Mr. Shaw was walking in the Champ de Mars with a couple of officers, when La Liberté espied him. He immediately ran up, and, seizing him by both hands, accosted him,--
        "Ah! mon cher Monsieur le Chat; comment vous portez-vous?" (My dear Mr. Cat, how do you do?)
        "Très bien, Louizon."
        "Et comment se porte Madame la Chatte?" (How is the mother cat?)
        "Bien, bien, Louizon; elle es très bien." (She is very well.) "Et tous les petits Chatons?" (And all the kit tens?)
         This was too much for Mr. Shaw. He answered shortly that thekittens were all well, and turned away with his military friends, leaving poor Louizon quite astonished at the abruptness of his departure.
         The principle of homophony also lay behind the rendering of Butte des Morts (Hill of the Dead) as "Betty More's," as one of Mrs. Kinzie's English-speaking travel companions insisted on calling it. Quite a different principle lay behind the pronunciations given by Indians to many French words. Certain sounds of French are absent in American Indian languages like that of the Menominee of eastern Wisconsin. Such differences resulted in transformations such as Menominee poso (both "hello" and "goodbye" as in Quebec French) for bonjour)and Sapatis for French Jean-Baptiste, the French "zh" sound being replaced by an "s" and vowel nasalization disappearing altogther. Because of the absence of the "l" and "r" in Menominee these sounds were replaced by the "n" as in Anemau for Allemand, Makenit for Marguerite, Manih for Marie, and Nowis for Louise. English speakers should not feel too smug about their language use, however. It is we Americans who render Pierre (South Dakota) as Peer, Versailles and La Salle (Illinois) as Versails and Lay Sal, and De Pere (Wisconsin) as Deep Ear.

Robert Hall is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Adjunct Curator of Midwestern and Plains Archaeology at the Field Museum, Chicago. He is an eighth generation native of Green Bay and a 1945 graduate of East High School. He received his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1960. [Return to Top]


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