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Occitan misrepresentation: the French identity conundrum

Occitan misrepresentation: the French identity conundrum

By Linguipixie

Occitan is the Romance language that was spoken indigenously in the South of France (around 1/3 of the current mainland territory) from the collapse of the Roman Empire and the development of a variety of languages from Vulgar Latin up until relatively recently (think, the World Wars). It is now still spoken in the South of France (though very little and all Occitan speakers also speak French, as their native language for most of them), as well as in some Alpine Valleys in Italy, and in a valley in the Pyrenees in Spain called Val d’Aran – although Val d’Aran is very small, Occitan thus became the 3rd co-official language of the autonomous community of Catalonia (within the Spanish state), alongside Spanish and Catalan, in 2008.

Based on the last sociolinguistic study (OPLO, 2020), Occitan has approximately 780,000 (potential) speakers in France (meaning there are 780,000 people with a more or less proficient Occitan language skill, whether they actually speak it on a regular basis or not). Yet, the language is quite mysteriously unknown to most French people – and by “unknown”, I don’t just mean that they can’t speak it (obviously they can’t, there’s almost 68 million French…) but that they don’t even know it exists, or barely do, or very incompletely. This can be partially explained by the history of language policies in France, but a brief comparison with the other so called “regional languages” of France hints at there being something more to Occitan that particularly hinders its recognition by the general public… So without further ado, let’s dive – briefly – into the collective psyche of the French Nation to try & understand this conundrum.

In the Middle Ages, Occitan was the language of daily life, as well as of the administration and literature in the South of France. Charters and other official documents were written in Occitan, and it was the language of the troubadour, who were noblemen (and noblewomen called the trobairitz) who turned to composing and singing songs at court after peace settled and war stopped being a daily activity in their lives (obviously, I’m grossly caricaturing, but you get the gist). Then, (what would become) French, a dialect of the Oïl Romance language that had developped in the northern half of France, being the language of the king’s court and administration, gradually began to spread to the higher classes of society in the whole country and to be learnt in order to climb the social ladder. When the French Revolution broke out, the Revolutionaries were, at first, friendly to the language diversity of the country’s people.

However, after a member of parliement, Abbé Grégoire, wrote an infamous report on “the necessity and the means to anihilate the patois and universalise the use of the French language”, France’s view on internal linguistic diversity drastically changed. Sure, it was only almost one century later that a patois anihilation plan was put into action, but it proved extremely effective: as school became free and compulsory for all children thanks to the Jules Ferry laws in 1881-82, the only language authorised in the classroom was French, and teachers used methods such as humiliation and denunciation to make sure their pupils would hate their mother tongue so much they would stop using it and would not speak it later to their own children. This is how, in less than 3 generations, a very linguistically diverse population achieved the monolingual unity it has today: through pain, suffering, and literally washing children’s mouths with soap as a punishment for committing the atrocity of speaking their native language.

No wonder, then, that regional languages almost died in France in the past century! Nowadays, France still has around 80 “regional languages” (50 of which in its overseas territories). For instance, Alsacian has 550,000 speakers, Breton 200,000, Corsican 130,000, Basque (in France) 74,000 and Catalan (in France) 30,000. As I’ve stated earlier, Occitan is technically the most spoken one, with an estimated 780,000 speakers. Yet, it is much less known than the other languages I just mentioned, and I make the argument that it is due, between other factors, to: its internal diversity; the size of its territory and the political management of the French territory; and the self-representation of the French Nation and its History.

  1. The internal diversity

Occitan is usually divided into 6 main dialects (Gascon, Lemosin, Langadocian, Auvernhat, Provençau and Vivaroaupenc), which can then be subdivided into smaller dialectal areas (for instance, within Gascon, one can find Bearnés, Landés, Bordalés, Gersés, Medoquin, etc). Occitan thus forms a dialectal continuum (meaning that people from two close locations in the Occitan space will always understand each other but people from distant locations might find it much more difficult).

The language also has two main spellings or spelling families: the modern spelling, which is basically based on the French phonographematics (meaning that in the modern spelling, you more or less write Occitan as if you were transcribing the words in French, if that makes sense); and the classical spelling, which is based on the spelling used by the troubadours in their poems, and is quite a departure from the French spelling. For instance, here’s the beginning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Gascon in the modern spelling and in the classical spelling:

  • Modern spelling: “Toutes las persounes que vaden libres e egaus en dinnitat e en dret. Que soun doutades de rasoû e de counsciencie e qu’ous cau agì ente eres dap û esperit de fraternitat.”
  • Classical spelling: “Totas las personas que vaden libras e egaus en dignitat e en dret. Que son dotadas de rason e de consciéncia e que’us cau agir entre eras dab un esperit de fraternitat.”

To add to the general confusion, some Occitan speakers, and a few linguists as well though they are a minority in the field, claim that some idioms considered by most as Occitan dialects, especially Provençau and Gascon, are, in fact, distinct languages (the Bearnés even often tend to say they speak Bearnés, not even Gascon, and even less so Occitan, and the same goes for the Nissart within Provençau). Moreover, these claims are often associated with the use of a different spelling: Provençau is therefore mostly written using the modern spelling (though some use the classical spelling) and this spelling is actually mostly used to write Provençau; on the other side of the map, some Gascon users use a classical spelling with a Basque twist, for instance transcribing “sh” with an “x”, to emphasise the importance of Gascon’s Proto-Basque substrate.

So the first reason why Occitan is quite invisible on its own territory is because there is no absolute concensus, even within the speaker community, on what Occitan is and how it should be called and written. Also, because regional languages were designated as “patois” for a long time during the anihilation period, a lot of speakers just know their language as “patois” and because of its proximity to French and of how they were taught in school that it’s not a proper language, they often think it’s just the way people speak in the village, some sort of broken language that’s just used to speak within the community but that’s not worth much in the broader world. Finally, perhaps, just like the Oïl languages or dialects, the linguistic proximity to French is more of a handicap when it comes to being recognised as a true independent language; Basque, Breton or Alsacian sure don’t have that kind of problem!

  1. The territory

According the the latest linguistic study (OPLO, 2020), around 7% of the population of the South of France has Occitan language skills. As we have seen, that amounts to a lot in absolute numbers, but those speakers are spread out over one third of the national territory, which makes them an invisible minority. Indeed, Occitan is spoken in 32 départements, whereas Basque and Catalan are respectively spoken in only half a département, Corsican in 2 départements (which form a région), same as Alsacian, and Breton in 4 départements (which also form a région). This means that each of the other languages cited is spoken on a much smaller territory than Occitan and contained within at least one territorial administrative entity. The Occitan territory, on the other hand, never ever formed a political entity in the past and is only subsumed by the national territory. 

Linguistic Occitània is therefore only a linguistic territory, and bearing in mind that not all Occitan speakers actually agree on its linguistic unity, it makes Occitan very difficult to locate on a map for non Occitan speakers, for they have no known territory subdivision that they can associate it with. Moreover, to add to the confusion, a reform of the régions system implemented in 2016 created an administrative région called Occitanie, in the very heart of linguistic Occitània, which means that now, people tend to wrongly associate the language, Occitan, with this known territory, which only comprises a (large) third of the linguistic area it was named after. The Ofici public de la lenga occitana (OPLO), which ordered and coordinated the sociolinguistic study I mentioned early, a linguistic policy administration formed (only) of two régions out of the four in which Occitan is spoken, Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Occitanie, and therefore implement linguistic policies in only 22 départements out of the 32 in which Occitan is spoken.

  1. The “National Myth” of the Hexagon

I don’t know if it’s a thing in English, but in French, (mainland) France is sometimes referred to as the Hexagon because of its shape. And if you look at that Hexagon, you can see that each corner is actually the territory of one of the better known regional languages, and these cornered languages are actually vastly spoken on the other side of the border: in the North, there’s Picard and Flemish, which are vastly spoken in Belgium; in the North-East, Alsacian is a dialect of German; in the South-East, Corsican is originally a dialect of Italian; in the South, Catalan is massively spoken in Spain, same as Basque in the South-West; finally, in the North-West, Breton is a Celtic language from the Brittonic family and was actually introduced on the continent by Welsh immigrants a long time ago.

So, there you have it: regional languages that survived the anihilation policy, but somehow don’t really mess with the “National Myth” that all French nationals speak French, as it is in the natural order of things. Indeed, those languages are only spoken in small areas, all on the outskirts of the national territory, and their existence and survival can easily be excused by the size of their cross-border territory and vitality. They are therefore cute little local cultural oddities, quite charming when you think of it.

However, when it comes to Occitan, well… it doesn’t fit the pretty picture of French being an almost uncontested master on its national territory. And this is perhaps one of the many reasons why French people don’t really know what Occitan is: because somehow, it doesn’t fit the representation they have of themselves as an all-time French-speaking nation. On the other hand, Occitan, when it is made visible, tells a very different story: that of what Occitan and Catalan sociolinguists called internal colonialism, or how the language and culture of those in power was forced onto indigenous populations, so much so that they even sometimes forgot that they didn’t use to speak the coloniser’s language in the first place.

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