Today we paid an Easter visit to our elderly neighbours, M. et Mme. F. We are very fond of them but our conversations with them are sometimes characterised by total incomprehension on our side. This is not just a cultural thing; it’s also because M. F is virtually unintelligible. The reason is that Occitan is his first language and he speaks French with its cadences.
M. F is now in his mid-eighties. As a boy, his family spoke Occitan, the generic name for the languages of much of southern France. He learned French because that was the administrative language and the one used in schools. Our friend Claude, now in his sixties, says that his parents spoke Occitan at home but he was forbidden to do so at school. Even now, he understands it but never speaks it.
What is Occitan? It’s not one but a wide range of languages based on common roots – the langues d’oc (the word for yes). They are distinct from the northern French languages, or the langues d’oïl. Occitan is closer than French to Latin. France was far from a united or homogeneous country, even after the Revolution, and the language differences reflect this.
In his fascinating book The Discovery of France (Picador 2007), Graham Robb explores this linguistic diversity. He includes a map showing the distribution of languages and dialects in France. An even more striking map charts the extent of French speaking in 1863. The closer you got to the Pyrénées, the more likely it was that 90-100% of the communes were not French-speaking.
Robb traced the line of the divide between oc and oïl in the upper Limousin. In between is a sort of narrow hinterland, where the languages have elements of both oc and oïl. Robb says the authorities thought that by imposing a standard language they would impose order on a benighted and anarchic country. Mostly, France wasn’t lawless, but gradually official French stuck and speaking it became the mark of an educated person. Many people remained bilingual, though, and, as Robb nicely puts it, “Speaking the national language was the equivalent of putting on one’s Sunday best.”
Occitan was primarily a spoken rather than a written language. Today, it is enjoying a revival. All the village signs in our area show not only the French spelling but also the Occitan spelling of the village name, e.g Caylus (French), Cailutz (Occitan). An estimated three million people speak Occitan. Despite this, the Académie Française, which polices the French language, refused to recognise regional languages since it considered they weakened national identity.
The revival has also given rise to Occitan dictionaries and our local newspaper prints articles in Occitan. But words and phrases varied between areas and even between villages so it is impossible to pin it down precisely. However, the similarities were greater than the differences so people who lived maybe fifty kilometres apart would have been able to understand each other.
You have to be careful how you describe Occitan to the locals. I made the mistake of referring to it as “patois” (dialect) to a friend, whereupon she roundly lectured me. “Occitan is a language in its own right! It’s only centralising bureaucrats who refer to it as dialect.” Passions run high.
An Occitan “hymn” even exists, entitled “Se Canto”, which has numerous variations – all spelt slightly differently. Its origins are lost in the mists of time but it’s known throughout southern France. Every year in late August we sing it at the end of the final Espinas walk of the summer as a kind of “auld lang syne”. It tells of a bird who sings beneath the narrator’s window every night. But the bird sings for the man’s lover, who is far away from him across the mountains.
Here is the chorus with my English translation:
Se canto, que canto canto pas per you,
Canto per ma mio qu’es ai lein de you.
If he sings, it’s not that he sings for me;
He sings for my love, who is far away from me.
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