the old language was spoken only by the old people


Many people who were recorded in statistics as French-speakers would have spoken the language only during a certain phase of life, when they were serving an apprenticeship, travelling to markets or working in a town. The dormancy of the local language could create the impression – often a false impression – that it was disappearing. For the last hundred and fifty years, examples of 'pure' patois have been collected from people invariably described as 'old', as if a separate, senescent species somehow propagates itself and its language without ever growing young. Generation after generation, countless people said the same thing : that the old language was spoken only by the old people. A woman in a small Alsacian town of Thann told me this (in French) in 2004. She was probably born in the early 1970s. It turned out, however, that when she talked to her little daughter at home, she used Alsatian. The younger woman who was with her – and introduced herself – as an example of the generation that has almost forgotten the language and will see the last speakers of it die away. Yet she, too, spoke Alsatian with her mother and grandmother. She also took many of her school classes in Alsatian. She could easily have told me that in Alsatian that Alsatian was dying out.

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