No doubt about it. Anti-semitism is real and frighteningly on the rise worldwide, especially with the rise of the extreme right, and we need to fight this tooth and nail. But the idea that someone who criticizes the Israeli government’s racist policies must be an anti-semite is ludicrous, a smoke screen for greed and thuggish colonialism. Good article by Juan Cole about Palestinian rights’ finally entering the American political mainstream.
Monthly Archives: October 2019
The United Nations has declared 2019 to be the year of indigenous languages, to call attention to the thousands of languages across the globe that are currently threatened with extinction. According to a U.N report, tragically, the world loses one language about every two weeks. Since language is also the main medium for the expression and preservation of culture, when a language dies, a culture is also threatened.
When we think of languages in danger, however, we don’t often think of a country like France. Yet linguistically speaking, France has a very rich and diverse history, with as many as 35 regional languages still spoken today. There, perhaps the language with the largest number of speakers, outside of French, is Occitan (formerly known as Languedoc or Provençal), which, despite centuries of suppression, is currently experiencing a resurgence, particularly among younger people.
What is Occitan and where did it come from? Occitan is not a dialect of French, nor is it a patois, a pejorative word referring to a language or dialect spoken by peasantry and indicating backwardness or rustic ignorance. Occitan is a separate language, distinct from French, with a separate history of development. Both are derived from vulgar Latin, like Spanish and Italian, but Occitan has much more in common with Catalan, the language spoken in northeastern Spain, and with the languages of northern Italy (Venetian, Piedmontese, Lombardian). While French is one of many langues d’oïl, a family of romance languages (including Picard, Norman, and Poitevin) which developed in the north of France, Occitan is considered a langue d’oc. The 13th-century poet Danté wrote about this regional distinction based on the vulgar Latin words for “yes”: oïl (oui) in northern France, oc in the south, and sic (si) in Italy and Spain. Today, Occitan is a language that extends from the Val d’Aran in northeastern Spain to the Alpine and Piedmont regions of Italy. It is even one of the common languages of Monaco.
Like most languages, Occitan exists as a family of dialects, the principal ones being Limousin, Auvergnat, Vivaro-Alpin, Provençal, Languedocian, and Gascon, all of which are mutually intelligible.
At the beginning of the 11th century, there was a culture in the south of France that was already rich, mature, cultivated, and refined, eclipsing that of the north and extending its influence throughout Europe. While other kingdoms still used Latin as the official language, the elegant vernacular of southern France had stabilized enough to become the preferred language of poetry, literature, song, science, administration, and justice. There, the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of England’s King Henry II and mother of King Richard Lionheart, had popularized the idea of courtly love and chivalry through the romances of King Arthur and his Knights. Troubadors, who were itinerant minstrels, traveled far and wide in Europe, singing their love poetry, so that Langue d’oc became unanimously admired as the language of beauty, refinement, courtly manners, and love (yes, long before French).
This predominance did not last, however, for in the 13th century Pope Innocent III launched a vicious and bloody crusade against the Albigensians, a neo-Gnostic religious sect considered heretical but tolerated in southern France. Like the Waldensians, the Albigensians, or Cathars, were an early reform movement seeking to cleanse itself from the corruption and venality of the established church. The crusaders devastated the land, and as many as half a million people, men, women, and children, may have been massacred. To this day, you can tour the south of France and visit quaint but ruined castles, the strongholds of once mighty counts who dared to thumb their noses at the power of the Holy See. From that point Langue d’oc never regained its power politically or culturally, although it continued to exist as a spoken language.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, the French-speaking kings of the north had begun radically centralizing their power. The government decreed, therefore, that all official communication and administration be conducted in French. Thus began an often ruthless official campaign of language erasure, which by no means ended with the Revolution. Still, by 1789 only 10-20% of French citizens spoke French as a first language; the rest spoke some kind of regional language (whether Romance, Germanic, or Celtic). In order to consolidate and preserve the gains of the Revolution, its leaders thought, France must become a united country, with one language and one system of popular education. Again, Occitan, as the most widely spoken regional language outside of French, remained a threat. Thus was born a system of official policies that would insure that this linguistic diversity would be neutralized, if not entirely eliminated. Speakers of Occitan remember this period as la vergonha (the shame), the great humiliation. School children were taught that their maternal language was nothing more that a patois, the lingo of an unwashed, uneducated peasantry; they were made to associate Occitan with dirt and ignorance and were humiliated or even struck if they dared to speak it in the classroom. (Americans may remember the vast reeducation campaigns of the 1950s, during which Native American children were wrested from their families and placed in schools, where they were taught to reject their maternal tongue and shamed if they used it. A form of cultural genocide). The greater tragedy was that generations of children internalized this shame and dared not speak their first language outside the home. As they grew up, they would refuse to teach it to their children, a language they only associated with pain and humiliation. Go to the south of France today and you will seldom hear a word of Occitan spoken in public, although this is beginning to change.
During the latter part of the 19th century, Occitan did experience a kind of renaissance, particularly owing to the efforts of one man, Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914). Poet, linguist, and lexicographer, he wrote in the Provençal dialect and endeavored to impose a kind of orthography on a language that was by then only spoken. For his poetry and his efforts to revive the language, Mistral received international acclaim, along with the Nobel Prize for literature in 1904. Yet despite these and subsequent efforts at standardization, Occitan has continued to decline dramatically. In 1860 Occitan-speakers made up approximately 39% of the French population. By 1993 they were only 7%, a statistic which caused UNESCO to put Occitan on its list of endangered languages. Today, there are over 700,000 speakers of Occitan across 4 countries, while perhaps as many as 7 million can understand it. It is still the most widely spoken regional language in France.
In 1992 the European Council passed a charter calling for the protection of regional languages. In the charter it is stated that all human beings have the right to be instructed in their maternal language. So far France has refused to ratify this charter. Instead, in the same year, the French Constitution was amended to stipulate that French is the only official language of the Republic, although a further amendment in 2008 conceded that regional languages are part of the cultural inheritance of France. Despite this characteristic recalcitrance on the part of the government, which hopes to run out the clock on Occitan, there is currently a small but growing Occitanist movement on the part of young people who demand some kind of official recognition for the language. Ironically, most of these did not grow up speaking Occitan, so they have none of the shame their grandparents carried. The movement is largely peaceful, although there is a small, radical minority that seeks some kind of regional autonomy, or even independence (as in Catalonia).
In 1982 voluntary bilingual instruction was legalized in France, which meant that children could be instructed in both French and their regional languages. By 2005 over 78,000 children were being taught in Occitan, many in calendretas, schools for early childhood education in Occitan. In some bilingual schools students are taught half their subjects in French, the other half in Occitan, or some other regional language. The challenge, of course, is finding instructors who not only speak Occitan but can also teach content in that language. Today, there is also a small but growing market for Occitan media: rock and rap bands, newspapers, television and radio programs, films, and cartoons. Is it the case of too little too late? It is clear that while the French government tolerates regional languages, it does little to save them from extinction. It will take nothing short of a larger mass movement to move Occitan back from the brink.
***For those looking for more information, on my podcast I recently interviewed Dr. Philippe Martel, a retired professor of Occitan studies at the University of Montpellier in the south of France. His specialties are the history of southern France and the attitude of the French school system toward regional languages. His most recent publication is Histoire de l’Occitanie, Embanner (2019).