24 October 2009

Lenga d'Òc

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.


Bill Chapman said...

I share your disappointment about the state of the Occitan language. A couple of years ago I visited a calandreta in Toulouse at the end of the school day. Although the children were clearly being given a good introduction to the language. However,the parents (mostly mothers) at the school gate used only standard French among themselves, and the children spoke French among themselves outside the classroom walls.

The same problem faces those teaching Welsh in the south-east of Wales,in the Newport area. Outside the classroom,in the wider community, the pupils hear only English.

The challenge in each case is to make the language a real everyday language of the community.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I'm not very optimistic about the future of Occitan, either. Maybe it's too late to make it 'a real everyday language' in many places, but who knows? It's up to the people of Occitania.

The French state, compared to others, has shown very little concern for the fate of its regional languages. A different type of policy qould be quite beneficial for Breton, Catalan, Occitan and other languages spoken in France.

Joan-Carles Martí i Casanova said...

As a Valencian, even further south than you are, I'm quite impressed with your Blog and I will certainly read more of it. I was born in Marseilles of Valencian parents -therefore a Valencian born in Provence- from Elx and I was brought up in Sydney, even more so a Valencian with English as his second major language -next to French- the first being Catalan.

Catalan is much more than my mother tongue as you will understand from my Blog. Being Fluent in French -mum always spoke to me in French and dad in the Valencian dialect of Elx- I learnt to speak fluent Occitan at age 22 in a Universitat Occitana d'Estiu. It was an easy task and people would sit at my table since I pretended I knew no French at all: a bit of strategic sociolinguistics always helps.

My Catalan helped the most but my French -and even my Spanish- also did. French was specially helpful in some of the syntax and Catalan in the morphology -even Spanish!-

I had the same feeling reading my first Occitan text -many many years ago- that I had reading my first Portuguese text.

I was startled by the fact I could read Portuguese will almost no effort mainly by my knowledge of Spanish. It very much looked and looks like Mediaeval Castilian and I would say that is another clear continuum. Nobody would dream making Portuguese a part of the Spanish language. A bit of other Romance lanagues and even my High School Latin also helped. The spoken language is a different thing altogether although the Brazilian version tends to be clearer for the Spanish or Catalan ear.

Speaking 4 Romances languages -and my High School Latin- also helped me enormously when I did two years of Italian at Alacant University.

A few years ago an 80 years old Catalan from Salses visited Elx and had quite a long conversation with a farmer from Elx. I speak of this and other things in my blog. It didn't take them long to carry on the same tune. They spoke of harvests, snails and the seasons in a lively conversation. It would have been quite a different thing for a Languedocian farmer -just to name the variety closer to Catalan- to have had the same conversation with my Elx farmer. Although they could have partially followed each other the Languedocian farmer would have taken mine for Spanish and the other would have taken his counterpart for French, speaking, of course, some sort of dialect half way in between.

Another thing is the Standard Language amongst cultivated scholars: I'm a fluent speaker of Standard Occitan and I've spoken with quite a few Occitan scholars. I've also spoken to native rural speakers.

Don't we all cheat a little bit!

It's been a pleasure to be here and I hope to pass many delightful times reading your subjects.

Si alguna vegada vens per Elx o Guardamar estaré encantat d'invitar-te a un café o una cervesa.
Joan-Carles Martí i Casanova

Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello Joan-Carles, and welcome to this blog. We both share our concern about the future of languages like Catalan and Occitan. In my case, I try to separate the language and the political issue; all too often linguistic demands are confused with nationalistic demands, which, in my opinion, is not necessary or even justified. Changing the past is impossible but it is easy to convert it into a myth, as nationalists usually do. In this blog I have written a couple of posts about Valencian/Catalan and Occitan, and I have tried to be careful not to sound 'political'. I defend the language of my parents without any special resentment. This defense has political implications only in the sense that politicians, obviously, must deal with the linguistic issue as part of their agenda.

Another term that I try to avoid is 'culture', which is also loaded with all kinds of implications and myhtologies. For me, a 'culture' is always a mixture of elements, and it has always been so. Any claims about a given 'culture' can be contrasted with the fact that 'cultures' are, per se, impure. It is only in the minds of some thinkers that 'purity' exists, especially when they talk about things that happened centuries ago.

I'm saying these things because I feel I need to clarify some points. My defense of regional languagues is by no means the defense of any political idea. Languages such as Catalan and Occitan can be defended in a variety of ways, not only from a nationalistic or independentist perspective.

Having said this, I will keep on talking about these issues in my blog. The title of the blog, "Language Continuity", has two major implications: continuity in time and continuity in space. I'm searching for the roots of languages beyond the limits of today's borders or standardised languages. I'm trying to analyse human languages from a human perspective.

Joan-Carles Martí i Casanova said...

Hello Jesús:
Thank you for the detailed answer. I don't necessarily agree with all you say. I, of course, am a great activist of Catalan and also Occitan. I belong to the generation which made certain things come into being against political dogma of the time. Co-officiality of Valencian (Catalan) for instance while our poor Occitans cousins are still a very long way of.

I know exactly -as a linguist myself- where the differences between the two Latin twin sisters start and end in a continuum. The fact is the Catalan continuum starts clearly at Salses and ends at Guardamar where I work. We are no longer in the year 1150 but in 2009. Inter-comprehension between Romance languages is a completely different issue.
I'm an extremely peaceful man and I defend my cause in a peaceful fashion, which can also mean I'm passionate and "engagé", which is quite different to "enragé" as you know.

You call them "regional languages" and that is no less political than my "national languages" terminology. Let's leave it at that! If Catalan is regional and Spanish is not we won't argue over this issue and we'll respect each other, of course.

I do hope that I too will analyse languages from a human perspective. It would frighten me to think it could be done otherwise by anybody.

I assure you that I'm interested by most of what you write in the Blog and issues such as toponomy, pre-Roman langauges or Indo-European are some of my great curiosities since my early days, the greatest being the "origins of language".
Needless to say, I'm a political animal in the sense that I have my own personal opinions although I try not to be too opinionated, whilst trying to change things I don't agree with.
I have already spotted a few articles of my interest and I will read them at night.

Jesús Sanchis said...

That's right, Joan Carles. In this blog we can discuss, debate and learn from each other. Once again, welcome!

- Per cert, no se m'oblida que tenim pendent una cerveseta per terres d'Alacant.

Marten Buschman said...

Hi there,

Thanks for the interesting blogs. And to add something to your remarks about Catalan and Languedoc, I think that there is one small community where one speaks some variant of Languedoc and that variant is still spoken by every inhabitant. I have visited in 1981 and 2008. It was a huge difference, everywhere the tongue of the people of Val d' Aran was on the streets and roadsigns. I don't know the exact position of that language, but it must something in between Catalan and languedoc.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello Marten,

Vall d'Aran is a little enclave in northern Catalonia, famous for its ski resorts. 'Aranès', the local language, is generally considered an Occitan dialect, not a mixture between Catalan and Languedocian. As far as I know, it's the only place in the whole 'Occitània' where the local language has official status and is protected and promoted by the government; for example, it is taught in all schools. In fact, in Vall d'Aran there are three official languages: Spanish, Catalan and Aranés.