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Occitan’s Representations in France

By Valentin Pradelou

Introduction

Occitan is an historic language spoken mostly in France, but also in Italy or even Spain. It is also close to Catalan, so much so that certain linguists choose to define Catalan as some sort of an Occitan dialect.

From a report published in 2013, we can see that Occitan was the most spoken regional language in France. It is also a big cultural language. Occitan was, in the Middle Ages, an important language, especially in administrative and juridic fields. In the 13th century, Occitan was a scientific language and was even used for international commercial exchanges. Then, France tended to erase Occitan by applying laws in favor of the sole use of French. Still today, the French language is the only officially accepted language in France.

Unfortunately, Occitan has lost speakers, and is even today considered to be threatened. In an article from Guzman in 2008, we can learn that Occitan’s transmission from family to family has been heavily stopped in the 20th century. In another article, this time from Bourgoin in 2013, it’s possible to read a short story about a pupil in a high-school talking “patois” in a classroom (pejorative way to talk about a dialect, or even a language). The professor, hearing this, tells him to stop immediately because “we don’t speak patois at school”.

Occitan is then in a particular context in France. On the first hand, we have a lot of people acting for its survival, learning the language and pledging for events and so on. On the other hand, we unfortunately have a lot of people for which this language is just a useless “patois”. In the article from Guzman, this language is even considered the language of “underdeveloped”, “elder”, or only “rural” people.

Thus, we decided to conduct a survey. We wanted to verify these representations, and hope it’ll be different, in the French departments of Dordogne and Gironde. These departments are situated in southwest of France and have been very close to Occitan in their history.

Through a questionnaire consisting of 14 questions, we had 109 answers about the representations of Occitan. This is what we’re going to present here, through a translation as the survey was conducted in French. We’ll first introduce the questionnaire and its different questions, before analyzing the different answers.

About the questionary

It was made of 14 questions. Four of these 14 questions were used to get pieces of information about the respondents (age, languages spoken, gender, and region of origin).

Questions were about what the people know about Occitan (words known in this language, famous writers or politic figures known, and known works in Occitan). This was about contextualizing the representations of the respondents: good/bad representations could be considered by the acknowledgement about Occitan.

And finally, we had questions about their thoughts on the language (what do you think of Occitan, do you think Occitan is a language, a dialect or a patois).

Who are the respondents?

As we have said in the introduction, respondents to this questionnaire come from south of France, especially Dordogne and Gironde.

There are a lot more women responding with a percentage of 78% against only 22% of men. Amongst them, every age bracket was here, the youngest was 14 and the eldest was 89. This sample had little link to Occitan though. Only a little more of 20% said they speak Occitan, for almost 80% not speaking it.

Even if the majority does not speak Occitan, they appear to have a certain awareness about this language. First, 62.4% of them told us they had relatives speaking Occitan.

With the questions about what the people know in Occitan, we had plenty of answers! A large number of the respondents told us about radio shows in Occitan, books, grammars, dramas, movies, tales, dances, fun stories. They gave us several expressions as well. They have also been able to cite a good number of public figures related to this language. We can cite some as Daniel Chavaroche or Jean-Paul Verdier, well-known Occitan storytellers, or even Nadau, a very famous music band.

Our respondents can be of any age, most of the time don’t speak the language but do know things about it. In this context, what could be their representations about Occitan?

Their representations about Occitan

The respondents had to give three answers in order to show what they think about this language. We’ll analyze the answers of the three following questions. First, “To you, is Occitan a patois, a dialect, or a language?”. Secondly, “Which image do you have of this language?”, and thirdly, “Would you like to learn it?”.

To you, is Occitan a patois, a dialect or a language?

This question was pretty representative. In people’s minds, there appears to be a clear distinction between these three notions. CNTRL defines a patois as some kind of oral linguistic code, spoken locally or in local groups, especially rural. It’s also a pretty pejorative way to talk about a language.

A dialect is a little more meliorative. For the CNTRL, it is considered as a language form between a patois and an actual language. Its principal difference with the patois would the fact of being written. The site doesn’t forget to talk about it as a particular form of a language.

Finally, a language would be, still to the CNTRL, an abstract signs system. If we follow this very definition, both patois and dialect are languages as well.

Unfortunately, respondents weren’t mostly thinking so. 57% told us Occitan was a patois, 32% told us it was a dialect, and only 11% that it’s a language. We can easily assume that most of respondents don’t really know the precise definitions of these notions: Occitan is a written and spoken language, used in almost a half of France.

Here, it seems that people have a pretty bad representations of this language. It has to be pondered though: most of them might not use “patois” or “dialect” in a pejorative way, but only to mean this language is not very spoken anymore.

Which image do you have of this language?

This question has very interesting answers as it almost goes 50/50 with negative and positive views. Positive answers seem to be more present, as not all answers are black or white. A large number of answers were also like “I don’t really know”.

Thus, negative answers were the following. Respondents told us it was a dead language, only spoken by old people or country dwellers. It seems kind of shocking as the answer of a “dead language” or “not used anymore” is clearly far from reality. It’s true this language is less used than before though.

However, a good number of answers were positive. People told us this language was friendly, catching, close to people’s life (certain answers claimed more than French, for example). Other said that this language is convivial and a part of a cultural identity, and remained to be preserved.

Would you like to learn it?

As for the image about Occitan, it goes about 50/50, with unfortunately a little more of negative answers.

When respondents answered “No”, it had different versions. It went from the simple “No” to the capital “NO”, with sometimes a little bit more information (like “I’m not interested”, “It’s not useful”, for example).

When they said “Yes”, it’s also graduated. It goes from “Why not”, to “Yes”. Sometimes, they sharpen their mind. For example, some said they wanted to “widen [their] culture”, “discuss with the old”, or they’d learn it “because it belongs to [their] cultural roots”. In general, respondents had mixed feelings about Occitan.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen in all the questions, respondents have mixed feelings about Occitan. If they were a lot to answer positively to their representations of the language, they weren’t the majority to answer positively to learn the language.

It is interesting, as all age brackets are represented, and people are coming from very Occitan influenced French Departments. We could then consider these answers as pretty representative, even if only coming from a sample of 109 people.

It seems that Occitan is unfortunately losing ground. Having a majority of negative answers about a language influencing a Department is not really reassuring. But there is hope, as we have also noticed that plenty of the respondents wanted to defend this language.

Every language is part of a culture, customs, ways of thinking, and so. It would be a pity to not defend regional languages as they are a good example of diversity.

Thanks for reading!

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