Where Are You From? Accents, histories and French intonations in Teton County

By on October 25, 2017

Photo by alainalele via flickr creative commons

I cannot count how many times I have been asked, “Where are you from?” by people in Jackson Hole. Although I should reply, “Why? Are you from the FBI?” I tell them with a slight grin that I am from Wilson, Wyoming.

After seeing their puzzled expressions, though, I feel the need to clarify with, “Originally I am from France.”

Going through explaining where I’m from–which for most people includes many places, and many histories – is getting to be an annoyance.

I was not born in the United States of America, and I have an accent. Nobody is perfect. My intonation has a French slant, which is not surprising because I was born in France.

Since 1967, though, I have lived in English-speaking countries: England, English-speaking, and not French, Canada and the USA.

After all those years, I still can’t shake away the enunciation. To make matters worse, I lived in England for 13 years, which means my speech is still riddled with English idioms. Even my wife, who is American, looks at me with a blank look when I use a British word or expression.

It is a fact that facial muscles and vocal cords develop early in life in such a way that it dictates the delivery of one’s speech. That is the reason that a language pattern acquired as an infant is very difficult to get rid of. I, and others like me, would need extensive coaching to develop the muscles into other shapes. Diction teachers who work with actors and singers can alter the patterns.

The KGB, or the now-defunct Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, was a group that acted as the main security agency for the Soviet Union until 1991, used to have language schools which were experts at teaching future spies how to speak like a native of the country they were sent to.

I have also noticed that for Scandinavians, it is also relatively easy to speak English without accent.

In Teton County, though, one of the answers that I give when quizzed on my accent is that I am from the French-speaking part of Wyoming. We do, after all, live among geographic landmarks named the Tétons, Nez Percé, Gros Ventre, Cache, Après-Vous, and Rendez-vous. French Trappers named those places. They probably also had accents.

Craig Sodaro and Randy Adams establish in their 1986 book “Frontier Spirit (The Story of Wyoming)” that the first Europeans to explore Wyoming belonged to a French expedition. It was documented by Lieutenant La Verendrye of the “ Infanterie de Marine” of La Nouvelle France (Upper Canada). The year was 1738, well before Lewis and Clark were staking their claim.

Their mission was to find the Western Sea, otherwise known as the Pacific Ocean. They had six canoes and were helped by local Natives, who told them about distant rivers with brackish and smelly waters, which were to be named “Yellowstone” years later.

In January of 1739 they reached the first mountain, probably the Big Horn. They survived the winter on moose and deer meat.

La Verendrye wrote: “Sans l’aide de Dieu nous n’aurions pas pu survivre.” That roughly translates (for you Wyoming residents who aren’t from the French part) to: “Without God’s looking after us we would not have survived”. They carried on and found a river flowing westward, which means that they had crossed the continental divide.

Alistair Cook, an English historian whose son lived in the valley, ran a TV series on the BBC and wrote a book about the history of America. In one lengthy chapter, he stressed the point that North America was well on the way to becoming an entire French possession, and therefore we would be speaking French nowadays. Well, guess who would have an accent then? In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French were everywhere.

In Maine, one cove was English and the one next to it was French. The territory, from the St. Lawrence River to what is now Detroit and Chicago, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and over to La Nouvelle, Orleans, was French. Alistair Cook made the point that the English colonies were completely encircled. La Salle, Champlain and Joliette were the explorers and conquerors of that vast territory.

Luckily for the British, the French King Louis XV was indirectly helping them, as he was too busy chasing women in Versailles and fighting in Europe. Under his reign, France lost India because there were not enough soldiers stationed there, and general Dupleix was forsaken. Or perhaps they were just not crazy about the local food either.

In regard to North America, the King could not see the importance of taking care of his territory. Given his wanton disinterest, things ended at the battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, when General Wolfe defeated an outnumbered French army under the command of General Montcalm.

Both generals died on the battlefield, and the fate of French North America was sealed forever. We know what happened next. The French helped the American revolutionaries out of vindictiveness.

La Fayette, Rochambeau and De Grasse helped the new nation to win. A few years later Napoleon made certain that the Gallic influence would be gone forever when he sold, for a pittance, the vast Louisiana Territory to America to finance his Europeans wars. Wyoming was part of the greater Louisiana.

So what is left of the French presence in Teton County? There are a few of us, and while we are not a mafia or a secret society, we all know each other.

We have had a doctor, a nurse, a deputy sheriff, an hotelier, two artists, one playwright, a ranch owner, restaurant owners, a cabinetmaker, various employees at the airport and two realtors. There was a lady from Alsace who has passed away who was cut off from her family during the entire length of WWII. I am not counting the few ski patrollers who come every winter from the French Alps.

I used to organize a gathering of “legal” immigrants on the 14th of July, the date when the French Revolution started; some of us have American citizenship. I also invited the “cousins”–namely the French-speaking Swiss, Belgians and Quebeckers. Average toll at one of those gathering, which we did not call the “Rendez-Vous,” was about 50 people. I don’t know for a fact, but I have a feeling that the FBI compiled files on all of us. Too many French-speaking Teton residents gathered together.

There are a few Francophiles in our community and it is uplifting. Still, we also had our gloomy moments during the Freedom Fries rage.

Sometimes it is nice to be different, though – be it from an accent or otherwise. I always chuckle when the lady behind the counter at the post office bellows out loud: “What’s up, Frenchy?” Bless her!

So there it is. Living in Teton County with an accent can be an odd experience, and hopefully now–1,000 words in–I have answered the question of where I am from for you curious Wyoming souls. PJH


About Yves Desgouttes

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