They may not be as well-known or widely-spoken as in neighboring Spain, but France’s regional languages have historically been just as important. They include Breton (a Celtic language) in Brittany, Alsacian (a Germanic language) near the German border, Franco-Provençal (a Romance language) in eastern France, Basque in Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and Catalan in Roussillon. Additionally, the Occitan language was historically spoken in the southern half of France and continues to exist there today, albeit to a much lesser extent.
For the past year, I’ve been living and teaching English in Tulle, a town of around 17,000 in the Corrèze department of southwest-central France. I have also devoted much of my time here to the study and appreciation of Occitan, a beautiful and historic language that once thrived in this area.
A bit of historical and linguistic context
Occitan is a Romance Language, having diverged from Vulgar Latin in the seventh or eighth century CE along with French, Spanish, Italian, etc. It is typically included alongside Catalan in a subfamily called Occitano-Romance: the two languages are quite similar linguistically although their current socio-political standings differ notably. In addition to southern France, Occitan is also spoken in Monaco, in the Val d’Aran in Spanish Catalonia, and in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont in Italy.
It is important to note that there are generally considered to be six dialects of Occitan: Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocien, Limousin (the one I learned), Provençal, and Vivaro-Alpine. There is, however, debate among both linguists and Occitan-speakers as to whether these varieties are actually separate languages, and the lack of a standard written form does not help matters. In any case, for the purposes of this article, “Occitan” refers either to all six dialects or to the Limousin variety specifically, depending on context.
Once Europe’s greatest literary vernacular, Occitan is best known as the language of the troubadours, lyric poets who composed and performed during the High Middle Ages. It was the native tongue of King Richard I of England and of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It also served as a lingua franca of international commercial exchange.
The French government, however, has historically treated Occitan (and other regional languages) with disdain, beginning in 1539 with the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. This edict made only the French language legal in France. In addition, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw Occitan (and again, other regional languages) banned in schools; children caught speaking anything other than French could be severely punished. As a result, despite its illustrious past, the number of Occitan speakers began to decline. It became increasingly associated with the poor and uneducated, and parents stopped passing it on to their children, choosing instead to speak only French.
Today, the Occitan language persists in southern France, mainly in rural areas and among the older generations. Per the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages, however, four of its six dialects (Auvergnat, Languedocien, Limousin, and Provençal) are considered severely endangered, meaning that they are generally only spoken by the oldest generations. The remaining two (Gascon and Vivaro-Alpine) are considered definitely endangered, meaning that while they may have some younger speakers, children born today are not generally learning them.
While efforts to revitalize a language must come largely from within, I have done my best this year to be a part of the Occitan-speaking community. What follows is just some of what I observed and learned in doing so.
What should we call this language?
Earlier, I mentioned the question of dialect versus language as it relates to the Occitan-speaking world. Some speakers of the Provençal “dialect,” for example, would say that they speak a language called Provençal without knowing or believing that both it and the other five “dialects” constitute what academics refer to as Occitan. Within France, it is also called lenga d’òc (in Occitan), langue d’oc (in French), or simply the langue régionale (local language) of the area in question.
Matters are further complicated by the use of the term patois, a French word often used for regional languages or for nonstandard dialects of French. In Tulle, for instance, patois is far more common than “Occitan” when referring to the local language. In fact, “Occitan” is seen by many as an inauthentic term, imposed by the academic world on what is largely the domain of the rural and less-educated. Patois, on the other hand, has traditionally had derogatory connotations but is nonetheless used unashamedly—even proudly—by many Occitan speakers. I arrived in Tulle determined never to call Occitan a patois, but by the end of my stay I better understood the term’s complexity. In any case, the question of what to call the language persists and sadly, may act as a barrier to its preservation.
An American learning Occitan?!
Locals’ reactions to my trying to learn their language were typically a mix of enthusiasm and mild amusement. Some wondered why I would “waste my time” doing so, while a few others questioned my loyalty to France and the French language. Still others asked why I had chosen Occitan rather than an endangered Native American language, something I had never actually given much thought to but may consider in the future. Generally, though, I was met with happiness and appreciation for my efforts; I even ended up on local news for participating in an Occitan dictation, and I was interviewed by the Institute for Occitan Studies in Limousin. I also attended Occitan classes at a middle school where I worked (one of only three schools in the region to offer them) and participated in a biweekly conversation group/workshop. As a result, I met wonderful people who were very supportive of my desire to learn their language.
Hope for Occitan
Occitan may never be the flourishing language that it once was, but my experiences this year have given me hope for its survival. At the dictation that I mentioned above, I saw community members of all ages—including children as young as twelve—come together to honor their shared linguistic heritage. Similarly, in Occitan class at the middle school, I met many hardworking and motivated students. They and others like them are the future of this language.
From May 30th through June 2nd of this year, the Balad’òc festival took place in Tulle, celebrating Occitan music, dance, cuisine, history, and traditions. And if nothing else, the language will live on in songs, sayings, proverbs, and place names across the southern half of France.
Language revitalization is a community affair, and I am glad to have belonged to a community that included Occitan speakers and enthusiasts. Likewise, I am happy to have learned some Occitan myself, and to be able to share with others the culture that I have come to love. Regional languages such as Occitan add to the diversity and rich fabric of French society, and should be acknowledged and respected rather than mocked or feared. In my short time in Tulle, I hope to have inspired others to learn Occitan, or at least to consider its importance. It would be the least I could do to give back to a community that has so inspired me.