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Driving around the foothills of the White Mountains here in western Maine, where billboards are banned by state law, political signs are quite visible, espcially at small crossroads. There are many signs for incumbent governor Paul LePage in anticipation of this year's gubernatorial election, and very few (so far ~ it is only May...) for Mike Michaud, although this area is in Michaud's congressional district.

In Lewiston/Auburn yesterday, the signs were closer to even, and there were almost no signs further north earlier in the week, towards Rangley (a hiking, hunting and skiing tourist town) and Farmington (a college town with a couple nice used bookshops, an excellent restaurant/bakery, and a personal favorite yarn and fabric shop), so I'm hoping the abundance of signs locally is one enthusiastic volunteer's work and not indicative of Michaud's electoral future.

Seeing signs with two Franco-American names (as the descendants of Quebecois immigrants are called here) after a lifetime of reading about politicians with names like Muskie, McKernan, Cohen, Mitchell, Longley, Baldacci, King, Collins, Brewster, and Pingree (leaving Margaret Chase Smith off this list for a reason ~ see below), while signs for local businesses often feature French surnames got me thinking about the historic nature of the election and how the history of French in Maine has contributed to this historic election with two Franco-American candidates for the first time happening now.

While there had been a very few French-speaking immigrants to Maine earlier, between 1840 and 1930 over a million Quebecois migrated to the United States, driven away by a lack of available farmland in many cases. A large percentage ~ about two thirds ~ of these immigrants settled in New England, drawn to the opportunities in the mill towns of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. With the development of railroads in the early part of the immigration era (the Portland to Montreal line was completed before the US Civil War), it was an easy trip from Quebec, and the possibility of return (permanent or temporary) was real.

The incoming immigrants often found themselves settling, especially early on, in areas with Irish bishops in the local Catholic churches, who encouraged langauge assimilation, but increasing numbers of Quebecois meant that by the end of the 19th century most 'petits Canadas' had Francophone priests, doctors, grocers, and teachers to serve the growing communities. [Belanger]

However, despite the availability of services in French, there was continuing great pressure to assimilate. For example, in 1919, in a move that with be familiar speakers of Native American languages, speaking French in public schools was banned except for actually teaching French as a foreign language, and students speaking French even at recess could be punished.

Getting back to Margaret Chase Smith ~ her mother was Franco-American, but her maternal grandfather changed his family's name from the very French Morin to the assimilated Murray ~ again, a pattern quite well known in other ethnic groups ~ to stand out less and increase his employment possibilities.

Maine's Franco-American population likely reached its peak percentage of the population around 1930 or soon thereafter, as the Depression basically stopped immigration from Canada. In 1930, according to the census, 13.4% of the state's population were either born in Canada or had one or both parents born there. [Table 2]

Post World War II, with basically no new French speaking immigrants and the availability of English mass media even in rural areas, the number of people speaking French in Maine started to decline even more rapidly. Cars led to people moving away from the 'little Canadas' to a house in the suburbs. Parochial schools mostly taught in English by 1950. As immigration ceased, cross-border familial ties became second and third cousins rather than siblings.

Tracking the percentage of actual native speakers of French living in Maine is a bit harder. The question asked on the US census has varied, making direct comparisons in different eras somewhat complex.

In 1940, the census asked what language was spoken in a person's home when that person was a child ~ but didn't ask if the person actually spoke the language himself/herself as a child. (The flaw in this method: I have several friends whose parents/grandparents spoke Yiddish, Italian, or Chinese but the children never really learned the language ~ a very typical assimilation pattern.) Approximately 16% of Maine's population that year said that French was spoken in their childhood home.

In 1970, the question was worded similarly. Maine was one of four states in 1970 where more than 10% of the population answered that French was spoken in a childhood home. [Louisiana 15.4%, New Hampshire 15.2%, Maine 14.2%, Rhode Island 10.7%, per Madeleine Giguere, "Social and Economic Profile of French and English Mother Tongue Persons, Maine, 1970", available from the University of Southern Maine's Franco-American Collection/Collection Franco-Américaine. Four other states ~ Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and New York ~ had more than 100,000 people who answered French as a childhood home language, but their larger populations made the percentages much smaller.] In Maine, most French speakers were native born (86.9%), with half also having native born parents, reflecting the minimal immigration after 1930. French speakers were slightly more likely to be part of the labor force (disproportionately employed in manufacturing) but also more likely to be unemployed. Fewer were enlisted in the military, and many fewer had a college degree (5.6%, compared the 13.2% for native English speakers ~ LePage has a college degree, but Michaud doesn't.)

For the 1980 census, the question was changed to reflect whether a person spoke a foreign language at home at the time of the census, rather than the childhood home. Approximately 8% of the population said that they currently spoke French at home. The drawback to this question is that some people who are native speakers of a language will live with non-native speakers ~ but others who understood some of what their grandparents said and use a few phrases will claim to speak an ancestral language out of ethnic pride. So, it is hard to derive an exact native speaker percentage from the way the question was worded, but 8% to 12% is a reasonable guess, based on typical assimilation patterns.

In 2000 and 2010, the question was worded similarly to 1980. According to the American Community Survey (run by the Census Bureau), the percentage of Mainers who spoke French at home in 2000 was 5.29%, while in 2010 it had dropped to 3.93%, which reflects the aging population of immigrants and the post-war assimilation of their children and grandchildren.

French is still the most commonly spoken language other than English in Maine ~ Spanish is second with about 1% of the population, and as many non-native speakers speak French as all other non-English languages combined. Because of the different wordings of the question, it is hard to compare the 1940 and 1970 results directly to the 1980/2000/2010 answers ~ but use of French at home in Maine likely dropped about in half in the thirty year period between 1980 and 2010.

In terms of ethnicity, rather than language, in 2010 about 24% of Maine's population identified as French or French Canadian. See this report (pdf) to the state legislature's Task Force on Franco-Americans for more discussion of the limitations of how questions on ethnicity and language are limited, such as allowing only one choice of ethnicity. Half of all Franco-Americans, as self-identified for ethnicity, in Maine in 2010 lived in three counties: York (primarily Biddeford, Saco and Sanford), Cumberland (Brunswick), and Androscoggin (Lewiston).

For comparison, the 2010 percentage of French speakers in Louisiana was down to 2.79%, in New Hampshire to 2%,and in Rhode Island it's now barely 1%. One interesting study would be why Maine has retained a higher percentage of French speakers than the other states with over 10% in 1970.

Using the same data survey, in 2010, Spanish speakers were 29% for Texas, 28% in California, 20% for Florida, 12% for Colorado and Illinois, and 7% for Georgia, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.  (Yeah, the page the Modern Language Association has put together to putter with the American Community Survey statistics is least for someone like me, enough of a linguistics geek that I went ahead and got a graduate degree in the subject.....)

Many of the socioeconomic differences seen in earlier years have disappeared, although Maine's Franco-Americans are still less likely to have a college degree and to be younger overall (39.1 years vs. 43.7). And, in a change from earlier years, those who identify ethnically as Franco-American are more likely to be native born than other Mainers (98.5% of Franco-Americans, 95.9% of all Mainers).

The percentage of the population that speaks French also varies across the state ~ in sparsely populated Madawaska (in the north of the state, closest to Francophone Canada), it approaches 50% still, while some of the traditional mill towns it is still in the 8% to 12% range. In Portland, the percentage is likely closer to the state-wide average or a little below it, while some coastal counties (Knox, Waldo) barely have any native French speakers ~ maybe 1%.

The French speaking population also skews older ~ the percentage of children entering school in Maine as native French speakers is likely around 2%, according to state department of education statistics. A church that advertised half its masses in French when I was a child in the 1970s now has one a month ~ and the bulletin advertises a French-speaking group for seniors, but all the activities for children and young professionals are in English.

In a standard assimilation pattern, Maine has two Franco-American candidates for the same statewide office for the first time just as the number of French speakers reaches its lowest percentage in well over a century.

Side note: there seem to have been a few other statewide (governor, senator) races in other states with two non-native speakers running (found a couple likely elections in AZ and NM, for example, during the early part of the 20th century), but it's often hard to tell just by surnames. I'd love to hear of any such races where the two candidates were (for example) Norwegian speakers in Minnesota or German speakers in Pennsylvania. So far, this is the first such race I've found where the two candidates are not native speakers of either English or Spanish.

Originally posted to mayim on Fri May 23, 2014 at 07:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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