Hello acolyte of linguistic pilgrimages 🗺️, here I’m going to talk about the Occitan language. Woah!
We will look at: what it looks like, where it comes from, why speak it, how to learn Occitan and what wonders it has produced in its first thousand years of history.
The Occitan language has been used, since the early Middle Ages, in commercial documents, scientific treatises, administration and literature. And uuuuh, Occitan literature 📚🤩
The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904 awarded to Frédéric Mistral, an Occitan author from Provence, was also an award for the Occitan language: a millennium of literary prestige.
Thus, your suspicions are confirmed: it is a glory of the past, although as we shall see, Occitan has a firm foothold in the present too.
Why should you read this post? And why should you care about Occitan?❓
It’s easy to say: Occitan is little known and many among those who know have been told a biased story. I try here to take Occitan out of his cloak of mystification and oblivion, to put it back to the podium it belongs to.
⚠️ Disclaimer: despite having written A LOT, this entry simplifies and summarises. The friends who are experts in Occitan studies shall forgive me. Words in Occitan are written in the red of its flag.
And now, let’s jump into the ocean that the Occitan language is. 🤓
Occitan Language: introduction
Below, please find a few things that were mentioned to me when I brought up that I was considering writing about the Occitan language:
- Occitan? That stuff we read in literature class about minstrels?
- Occi-tan language like… language of Occi-dent?
- Occitan…. err, what?
- It’s been a long time since you’ve written about anything useful on your website, am I wrong?
That’s why I have little hope in mankind. 😑
Let’s see, my fellow linguophiles: Occitan, or , or Lenga d’òc in Occitan itself, is the first Romance language that broke away from Latin. Occitania, as the name given to the area where it is spoken, is thought to have come from there: òc + tania, copying the toponym of nearby Aquitaine.
The first mentions of Occitan as a language and Occitania as a region date back eight centuries: however, their contemporary use dates from the 20th century: these terms have been revived by movements claiming, culturally and politically, the Occitan peculiarity.
But let’s take it one step at a time. First of all, what does this Occitan language look like? Let’s have a look at it.
Basic words and phrases
Here is a very small collection, the fruit of my readings and travels, without claiming to be exhaustive.
As we will see later, the Occitan language is characterised by a great internal variety: if you come from an Occitan-speaking area or know another way of expressing a similar thing, I would be grateful if you could leave me a note in the comments.
Hello! / Good morning! = Adieussiatz! Bonjorn!
Good afternoon / Good evening = Bon vèspre
Good night = Bona nuèit
Welcome (m) / Welcome (f) = Benvengut / Benvenguda
Good luck = Bon astre
Do you speak Occitan? = Parlas occitan?
A little = Un pauc
Excuse me = Desencusatz
What’s your name? = Coma te sonas?
My name is Fabio = Me sòni Fabio
How are you? = Va plan? / Quò vai ben?
Good, thank you. And you? = Va plan, mercés. E tu?
Where are you from? = D’ente ses?
I’m from Cerquete = Sei de Cerquete
🥂 = Santat!
Give me a beer 🍺 please = Balha-me una cervesa, se te plai
I (don’t) understand = Compreni (pas)
Would you dance with me? = Vòles dançar dab jo?
Hmmm forget about it = Hmmm jamai de la vida
Okay = D’acòrdi
No = Non
Watch out! = Mèfi!
And the defining word of the Occitan language: yes, as you expected, that’s òc. 🙂
La Blonde d’Occitanie, one of the greatest Occitan beers: from la Gard, with love.
Question: But is it a dead language or is Occitan still spoken in these lands?
Answer: It is still spoken!
Question: And how many people speak it?
Answer: Hmmm, an extra question? 😂
I’m kidding, no extra question. Let me dive into how many people speak the Occitan language.
How many people speak Occitan
This is a difficult estimation to make for any language, even more so in the case of a one whose past is as erratic as that of Occitan.
Estimates range from two hundred thousand people to nine million. 😯
It depends on who is measuring and how: if for whatever reason someone wants to show off their muscles, or if they prefer to downplay the Occitan phenomenon, etc. However, conservative estimates talk about:
- one million speakers of intermediate level and upwards, and
- about four million with at least some understanding of the language.
Again, these are numbers to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Uhm okay, all very interesting, but where is Occitan spoken? In which corner of the planet is Occitania located? 🧭 Let’s see.
Where is Occitania?
Cool colourful contemporary maps can be found everywhere, so enjoy this 1963’s one:
The langue d’oc is on this map referred to as an ethnic language, alongside Breton, Basque and Catalan: in other words, languages that are recognised, if at all, only in part by their respective states, because the peoples who speak them are not constituted as specific states.
In the case of France, recognition is marginal.
Thanks to this map, we understand that France is the land of Occitan, although portions of Italy and Spain are also marked as Occitan-speaking.
💡 Note: in reality, there are two Occitan languages.
When I speak of Occitania here, unless otherwise stated, I am referring to historical Occitania, not to the eponymous French administrative region born in 2016 from the union of Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon.
Occitania is an area of Europe lightly celtized and strongly romanised: in the Middle Ages, it was never an independent kingdom, although there was political and social convergence between the sovereigns spread across its lands.
The Rough Guide to France: the most recent and reliable guide of the area.
Occitan lost the race to become the national language of the French, aka the language spoken in today’s France, the French we have in language schools, universities and bookshops when we decide to learn French.
It happened for political reasons, although it should not be forgotten that the langue d’oïl, the direct ancestor of contemporary French, also had literary vigour. 💪
In addition to France, the Occitan language is also spoken in:
➡️ The Principality of Monaco: they may be few, but there are some speakers.
➡️ Italy: in several valleys in Piedmont and some in Liguria, the so-called Occitan Valleys.
In Italy, a total of 109 municipalities belong to the Occitan linguistic minority, a language recognised in the Constitution of the Transalpine Republic as a minoranza linguistica storica.
➡️ Spain: in the Aran Valley, where Occitan has been the co-official language of the Regional Government of Catalonia since 2006.
The beautiful Pyrenean valley is the territory, of all historical Occitania, where Occitan is mostly protected and promoted, even though under the name Aranese here.
And… surprise surprise: it is also spoken in Guardia Piemontese, which is Calabria, the tip of Italy’s boot 🇮🇹 Really? So far from France?
Yes yes: it’s a city founded by heretics fleeing Piedmont, in times when the Church of Rome was not very ecumenical.
Take a look at the bilingual signs along the streets of Guardia Piemontese, perched as it is on a hilltop overlooking the sea: the virtual tour starts from near the Porta de la Sang 🩸, which, as you might guess, owes its name to a not-so-cheerful village event:
Now, let’s delve a little deeper into the past of the Occitan language. Languages, like people, have stories to tell. 🗣️
Occitan language, ep. 1: From Rome I come, here I stay
How did Occitan come to be, in the words of some of its advocates, the most widespread unofficial language in the European Union? We should start with the dense prehistory of Occitania.
I won’t bother you any more than necessary, just a few facts.
It’s easier to understand certain historical phenomena if we take a look at a physical map of France: the Alps to the east, the Massif Central to the north, the Pyrenees to the south-west.
Natural borders have defined certain migrations, settlements, arrivals from the sea of peoples from the East 🏺, but they have also made sure that not everyone could pass through here as they please.
There are impressive prehistoric sites: the cave of Cro-Magnon, the cave paintings of Lascaux, the remains of Neanderthals, the megalithic cultures, etc.
However, we have to leap forward in the centuries, however, if we want to meet recognisable peoples: the Aquitanians, the Iberians, the Ligurians, the Greeks were all around here and had dealings with civilisations such as the Etruscans, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and various Celtic tribes. 🕈
Several of the languages spoken by these groups have influenced the Occitan language: place names with the suffix <sk> are Ligurian, words such as pic, cailhou or sèrra are of Proto-Indo-European origin, among others.
Histoire de France en BD – De la prehistoire à la gaule celtique: a good summary in comic book format of the first centuries of French history.
Not an academic tome, as you can see… but don’t be fooled: there is real history there, drawings are cool and it’s high time to become familiar with French anyway.
However, the Celtic linguistic legacy left was secondary to that of the d’oïl family, i.e. from the Massif Central of France northwards. ⬆️ But despite their roots, when the Romans arrived, the linguistic tables were turned.
The very name of one of the most Occitan regions of Occitania, which is Provence, comes from the Latin toponym Provincia Romana.
The region, historically and administratively, was so coined because it was the first to be established beyond the Alps in the 2nd century BC: the Romans went there to help the locals ⚔️ against the Ligurians and the Carthaginians, who had become scoundrels.
Then, the Romans did what they were most skilled at doing:
- They erected amphitheatres,
- built baths,
- extended their network of roads,
- gave Roman citizenship to everyone,
- they feasted on red wine and garum 🤢.
In the process, they stayed and merged with the natives.
The rest is well known: the features that any native speaker of a Romance language recognises in the Occitan language are Latin. And Occitan has remained very close to Latin, I would say as much as Italian or Catalan.
A million-euro question is: At what point does Latin die and Occitan is born?
We have texts from around the 11th century A.D. in which it seems clear that the passage of the baton from Latin to Occitan is a fait accompli.
One of these is the Cançon de Santa Fe, a poem weaving along 593 verses the history of Fe d’Agen, a young woman who was martyred by the Romans for her Christian faith. ✝️ Here’s an extract from this hagiographic poem:
Llegir audi sotz eiss un pin
del vell temps un libre latin.
Tot l’escoltei tro a la fin,
hanc non fo senz qe’l non’l declin.
Parled del paire al rei Licin
e del linnadge al Maximim.
Cel meiro’ls santz en tal traïn
con fa’l venaire’ls cèrvs matin,
aclusa’ls menan et a fin.
Mòrtz los laissavan en sopin.
What do you think about it? 🤓 Well, it would make more sense if you already knew Italian, or French, or another Romance language.
While all this was taking place in the south, further north the union of people whose mother tongue was Latin with the Celts and Germanic peoples was taking place, creating what was to become French proper.
For this reason, when the Parisian crowns later imposed their own language on all their subjects, French seemed quite foreign to someone from Provence. An inhabitant of Nimes or Marselha would understand a Catalan or a Piedmontese better than a Normand. 🤔
Probably, the human feeling was also closer: the success of films such as Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the North) is also the result of this cultural gap between “the two Frances”.
Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis: a film that will make the muscle fibre in your abs crack in pain.
But in the years when the Cançon de Santa Fe and other early writings showed that Occitan was growing to become a dominant player in the Europe of the time, the Golden Age of Occitan was about to begin.
It’s the Golden Age of troubadours. 🆒
Occitan language, ep. 2: The troubadours
Surely you’ve been pestered at school with troubadours, those minstrels in costume… ahem, I mean:
- Dressed up in curious garb,
- playing stringed instruments,
- prancing around the European courts 🏰 or the squares of medieval cities,
- or even accompanying crusaders,
- while reciting works in their own handwriting or borrowed from fellow musicians.
Well, your teachers were right to give you a hard time about that. 😬 The troubadours were true geniuses, numbering no more than five hundred in their height, giving their impetus to literary trends that would last to this day.
They were the first to say that, yes, Latin was fancy, but the vernacular language was equally cool. 😏
The founding texts of the other Romance languages owe much to these artists of words, many of them high-born: troubadours were cultured AND innovative enough to create a new genre.
Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, a Bilingual Edition by Various Authors
What can I say? You should read it, even if your language of choice is another. As you will see, authors and translators are first-class (Robert Kehew and Ezra Pound among them)
A troubadour ends up in Dante’s Divine Comedy with a fragment in Occitan. But not only: their lyrics find space in:
- Petrarca’s Il Canzoniere,
- lyrics in the oïl tradition, in the north of France,
- the works of Ausiàs March and Alphonse X the Wise in the Iberian peninsula,
- the German Minnesang, and
- in cultural settings very far from ours. 📜
The troubadours belonged, to a large extent, to the nobility: unsurprisingly, if we consider that the blue bloods were among the few who, at the time, had the education required to handle sophisticated literary forms.
Likewise, there were priests, minstrels, knights, merchants and even sovereigns who composed and recited their creations in front of an audience. 🎻
From the ancient troubadour tradition derive those who today we also define troubadours, although it would be more correct to define singer-songwriters: Francesco Guccini, Joan Manuel Serrat, Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen, to name but a couple. 🎤
But from there also come a few direct heirs: artists who compose new troubadour works today, and some who reinterpret pieces from that time, gems like A chantar m’er de so q’ieu non volria, which is this one:
Eight centuries have passed. It was primitive Occitan. Even so, one senses the sorrow of Beatritz de Diá, a troubadour from Montélimar who did not see her love returned. 😔
Troubadour lyrics are not only about romantic love but also about courtly virtue and political satire, in poetic form.
They confirm that a thousand years ago, the elites were already living and enjoying themselves in the vernacular, the vulgar language, abandoning the inertia that wanted everything in Latin.
Troubadours, in turn, reinforced the phenomenon: in a few decades, Occitan became as respected and celebrated as Latin, in letters and all over Europe. In other words, if we were to consider the Middle Ages as dark years, the troubadours would be candles in the darkness. 🕯️
In the mid-14th century, troubadours went out of fashion, just as bell-bottoms and Dalmatians went out of fashion in more recent years. 🐶
It should be noted that the Albigensian crusade of a hundred years earlier didn’t help; 1348’s Black Death, ahem, was hardly supportive either.
The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages, by Malcolm Barber
The essentials about the Cathars can be learned from this book.
In the 400s, according to historians, the pestilential wave would have wiped out 40% of the French population throughout the country: it’s staggering.
Other sources state that between 1340 and 1440 the population of France went from 17 to 10 million people: reading between the lines of these studies, it seems that the impact in Occitania was the same as in the rest of France, which is brutal.
All in all, the Occitan language survived, albeit for a few centuries in terrible straits. 🤕
The setbacks that followed were due neither to pandemics nor to passing fashions, but to the political winds that have been blowing in France ever since.
Occitan Language, ep 3: Decline in the Modern Age
The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts of 1539 is the first blow: through this edict, the d’oïl-speaking community took the lead over the others in France, which were quickly minorized.
Earlier, when the administration worked with documents in Latin, in France each region and people were at an equal disadvantage: not any more. The waves of repression that have followed, one after the other, since then have not helped Occitan, Breton, Alsatian or any other language. 😲
These are centuries of interesting history, with many ups and downs. More downs than ups, to be precise.
The French Revolution was also a major low point: the country’s steering wheel was clearly turned towards Oïl French.
The Women Troubadours, by Meg Bogin
It’s a beautiful book. Bogin’s pen is outstanding. The troubadours phenomenon saw among their finest a fair share of women: I emphasize we’re talking about the European Middle Ages.
In 1794, a key figure in French language policy comes into play: Abbé Grégoire. He presented his Report to the National Convention, i.e. the first revolutionary government: another kick under the belt.
What was his “Report” about? The full title is exemplary: his Report on the necessity and means of annihilating the patois and the universalization of the use of the French language was an elaborate work.
Grégoire had travelled around France and heard with his ears how his fellow citizens spoke one of the thirty-three languages he counted. In other words, the France of two hundred years ago was a bit like the India of today: a linguistic rainbow. 🌈
Breton, Alsatian, Flemish, Basque, Italian, German, Catalan, Khoisanid languages (which he calls the language of the Hottentots)? Henri Jean-Baptiste Grégoire’s conclusion was that, for the good of the homeland and the patriots, it was necessary to focus on a single language.
Among other things, his anger stemmed from the peculiar French-speaking gap at the end of the 18th century: the great international success of the French language clashed with the limited diffusion at home. The priest from Lorraine wrote on 6 June 1794 in La Gazette de France:
Why on earth is French still ignored by such a large part of the French people, he wondered. The revolutionary government itself would consider the langue d’oïl to be the “universal language of the Enlightenment“.
Our clergyman continued:
(…) Which is why, with thirty different dialects, we are still in the Tower of Babel as far as language is concerned, whereas as far as freedom is concerned, we are the vanguard of the Nations.
The roadmap is clear: oïlophone monolingualism. ☝️
These are interesting times, but as I’ve been banging on about this for a while now and I don’t want you to leave me in the lurch to go check your friends’ photos on Facebook, I’ll stop here.
If you’d like to know more about these centuries and the linguistic initiatives undertaken by the State… it’s all summarised in French in this article.
Don’t feel like reading it? Then stick with this hasty, but not inaccurate, summary: the French state has since guaranteed the right to express oneself in the language of one’s choice, but this does not create any obligation for the state. The only language that does is French.
And how did it go after that? Hmmm well, after a not very encouraging 18th and 19th centuries, the 20th century didn’t end so badly 😉 Let’s see.
Occitan Language, ep. 4: The turn of the tide in the 20th century
At the beginning of the 20th century, the situation was already an ICU one: such fate was shared with the other indigenous languages of France. 🚑
For centuries, the Occitan language had been absent from public administration and reviled in literature.
As if that were not enough, the new compulsory schooling was fulfilling France’s mission to make its citizens monolingual French speakers: this was Jules Ferry’s law of 28 March 1882, aka… the umpteenth low blow.
It created compulsory public education for boys and girls between the ages of six and thirteen. 🎒
The new law, among other things, aims to cut the Church’s grip on the country, but also to eradicate any language other than French: Kabyle, Breton, Alsatian, Occitan are all patois, dialects, and therefore with no room in modern France. 😤
Children are told that respectable people must abandon their family language and speak French.
Those who don’t embrace the new rules are punished. Famous is the admonition Be clean, speak French that could be read on the walls of schools. So, by hook or by crook, the Frenchification of France continues.
A few more decades and one of the fundamental pillars of a community’s linguistic prosperity is crumbling: family transmission.
The language ceases to be handed down from one generation to the next. It is a sombre event in the history of the Occitan language. 😟
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the elders who were native Occitan speakers gradually died out. They left without having raised their children in Occitan. Why did this happen?
Because first at school, and then in life, they had learned that speaking Occitan was frowned upon, worse than bringing pizza with pineapple at my table 🤮. It was the language of social backwardness, of economic underdevelopment, as opposed to real French.
In spite of everything, the Second World War shook France for the second time in three decades: the return to the new normality saw a change of direction.
To better explore the history of our beloved baguette-based country:
A Concise History of France, by Roger Price
Although the title does not specify it, three-quarters of this essay is devoted to France as it takes shape from the 1880s up to the present day.
In the 1960s, the first occitanophile fervours were born: nationalist and regionalist political parties were founded, cultural clubs were set up, specialised publishing houses were founded: the flame was thus rekindled from a few embers. 🔥
Popular support led to a proliferation of initiatives:
- Radio channels,
- evening courses for adults,
- publications, and
- even public schools, those of the Calandreta network, in which Occitan is widely used.
Today, the Occitan language enjoys an extraordinary vitality. Fiuuuu 😌 Linguistically, a generation was lost: but the next one managed to get the thread going again. At last, Occitan has been redeemed from la vergonha, the long-standing shame campaign.
I don’t think we should crucify the French state for these centuries of history. It was a different era, it was the trend in most of the world and there was a lack of awareness of the incredible virtues of multilingualism.
On the other hand, one thing is as clear as day to me: you should never be ashamed to speak your own language. 😑
Conclusions on Occitan
That’s all for today about the Occitan language.
I have tried to condense in this first entry what I have learned about this epic ride that is the history of this interesting and mysterious language. Ever heard of la lenga nòstra before? 😄
Thank you for the time taken to read this. A lèu!
Your personal occitanist,
Edna Urwin says
It seems to me that the Occitan language suffered the same fate as the Welsh language. Welsh, however, has fought back and is being taught to children in Welsh schools. Of more concern to me is the fact that French is being taught less in English schools; Spanish is now being taught in England.
Thank you Edna for your feedback.
Welsh appears to be in better shape than Occitan, broadly speaking. I wish the latter enjoyed the same recognition, and popular sentiment, as the first. There are encouraging signs though that we shall not dismiss.
Spanish has been steadily growing, worldwide, for nearly thirty years. France is still promoting the French language, but not as hard as before. In my hometown of Valencia, the French Institute closed one year ago after 133 years of presence. It had a rich library, one of the vastest médiathèque of the city, theatre plays, cultural soirées, concerts and culinary events, all focused on the French language, France and the Francophonie. It’s now no more than an exam centre. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable.
Hi when you speak of Guardia Piemontese that was waldensians that brought the occitan language to Calabria that was the roman catholic church that called them heretics we don’t need to call them heretics we can call them waldensians, waldensians spoke vivaro alpine dialect of occitan but it was called something else in calabria, the waldensians were still secretly teaching occitan to their children when they fled to Switzerland and Germany
Hi Hilda and thanks for the message.
I assure you I mean “heretics” in the sense that such was the way they were called back in the day.