Today, at this time, as I sit in front of my computer writing this post, the streets of Carcassonne, a city in the south of France, must be filled with people demonstrating in favour of the Occitan language. It's impossible for me to be there (I live 650 km. further south), but I'm sure there are a lot of people from Catalonia or Valencia in that demonstration, sympathising with our northern neighbours. On the right you can see the poster of the Carcassonne event, written in Occitan.
The similarities between Valencian/Catalan and Occitan are striking, as can be seen in the poster itself: at first sight, it could be taken for a Catalan text. However, there are important differences in the official and social status of these 'regional' languages. Valencian/Catalan is considered an official language in the corresponding regions and it is used in all spheres: education, media, politics, etc. The speakers of Valencian/Catalan are counted by the million and the future of the language, despite the pessimistic views of some people, does not seem particularly sombre. The situation of Occitan is quite different. It is not considered an official language and the number of its speakers has decreased constantly since the 14th century, when la langue d'oïl, i.e. French, started to take over. A word like Provençal is forever associated with the flourishing world of the Medieval Troubadour, a time when this language was considered the lingua franca of literature in south-western Europe, and poets from Catalonia and northern Italy used it to write their poems. I'm sure that there are many people today who must think that Provençal and the other varities of the Langue d'Oc (see map on the left) are no longer spoken, but the truth is that they are still alive. In poor condition, but alive!
In two recent trips to that land of Oc (last December I visited Carcassonne and in the summer I spent a week in Provence) I tried to find out about the presence of Occitan in the areas. As I imagined, the result was a bit disappointing. But I did find some things. For example, a school in Carcassonne where children were taught in Languedocian (these schools are called 'Calandretas' and there are some more in the region). In some cities I could see street names written both in French and in Provençal (see photo on the right, which I took in Aix-en-Provence).
This reminds us that Occitan is not just a memory of the past. Below the surface of big nations with their official languages and their official borders (French, Spanish, Italian), there lies a world of less 'official' languages which are still preserved and which offer us a richer story: the one about people who could understand each other in a language continuum that lasted centuries.
Note: the map has been taken from this web-page.