For a couple of seasons, our little neighbourhood theatre, the Tabard Beaux-Arts, ran Sunday night choral concerts. Choirs, mostly amateur, are a vibrant tradition in this part of France. Every commune seems to have at least one. They are often superb, so it was interesting that the choir which drew the liveliest audience in the series was by some distance the worst.
It was a bunch of burly blokes, far advanced into middle age, who wore rustic hats and hooked their thumbs into their braces like stage cockneys. They sang ragged shanties of little obvious musical merit, unembellished by harmony, timing or melodic unison. The audience, their age and older, sang along and cheered each number with revivalist fervour. We did not join in, because we were unable to understand a syllable of it. The ensemble was singing in Occitan.
Occitan, for enthusiasts like these, is an available but not ubiquitous linguistic resource in this part of France. You stumble across it fairly often but never predictably. Some villages have bilingual road signs, most not. You occasionally see bars or restaurants whose name begins 'Lou', the Occitan equivalent of le. Catch the number four tram in Montpellier, and the names of the stops are announced first in French and then in Occitan. To the untutored ear (mine), it sounds like French spoken by a very angry Spanish woman. There is a definite snarl to Occitan.
At least, to some versions of it. Though there is a written Occitan (until very recently, our local newspaper ran a weekly column), the term more truly describes a gabble of spoken dialects, including Limousin and Provençal, much as people use the word 'Scots' to encompass everything heard between Burnsian Lallans and Grampian Doric, or even the near-Norse of the Northern Isles: lexicons that bear one another scant resemblance.
With Occitan, it is more complicated still. Our bit of France is called the Languedoc, derived from the language of Oc: that being the medieval word hereabouts for 'yes', whereas in the north they said 'oil' (later casualised to 'oui'). But the area saying Oc was much bigger than modern Languedoc, or even Occitanie, a confection invented by modern regionalisation. It lay south of an arc running from Bordeaux to the Alps. It bordered, and borders on other linguistic territories: Basque at the western end of the Pyrenees, Catalan at the eastern end, Franco-Provençal spreading north from the Alpes-Maritimes, Corsican near the Italian border.
Back then, dialect speakers from different districts would have struggled to understand one another. Even today, there are many variants. Occitan shades into Catalan from Perpignan westwards, while Spanish Catalan has a French flavour the closer you are to France. As Graham Robb's exhaustive study, The Discovery of France
, demonstrates, the French Revolution in 1789 didn't just dispatch the aristocracy: it also forged the beginnings of a coherent nation out of hundreds, maybe thousands, of semi-autonomous communes, many with their own dialects and cultural traditions. Some estimates say that, at the time the tumbrils rolled, only half the population could speak French; and that, as late as the 1870s, it was the first language of barely a quarter.
But the Revolution bestowed a social stigma on local patois, positioning it as the slang of yokels and reactionaries and setting off a relentless decline, not just in Occitan, but also in northern languages like Breton, Alsatian and Flemish. It is a familiar narrative. Every generation shuns the vocabulary of its parents, and migration from rural communities to cities in search of work demands a lingua franca
. Gaels, not to mention speakers of Irish or Welsh, will be nodding sadly at this. But here in France there is a further force at work… or rather, a remedial force not
at work. There is no sympathetic government ready to shore up moribund languages with subsidised television channels, interventionist education policies, courses for hobby learners, and bilingual street signs in places that never spoke the language in the first place.
Instead, there is Article Two of the French Constitution, which states that the official language of France is French. To reinforce this, there is the Parisian prefects' room of the Académie Française, a rarified convocation of the great and good, which issues edits, bearing the force of law, to uphold the integrity of the French language against vulgar neologisms and sloppy usages. The consequence is that all of French officialdom is obliged to communicate first and foremost in French, even if addressing itself to non-Francophone immigrant communities. Advertisers must produce copy in French, whatever additional tongues they may care to deploy.
From time to time, there are well-intentioned attempts to slacken the grip of dictionary French, but they rarely get far. In the 1990s, parliament commissioned a survey of the linguistic landscape, the Cerguilini Report, in preparation for ratifying the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The report updated the tentative count of minority languages in France (75, of which 24 are indigenous to the Hexagon) that might qualify for recognition under the Charter. But ratification was blocked by another grand coven of magisterial dignitaries, the Constitutional Council.
The law does not debar anyone other than government from speaking, teaching or promoting minority languages. But neither does it help them. In the wake of the Cerguilini debacle, Lionel Jospin's administration conceded nominal recognition and sanctioned bilingual teaching in public schools. But there was no money to make anything happen, and many trenchant critics. Some worried that reinvigorated regional languages could be a vehicle for autonomy movements. More significantly, the argument, familiar to Gaels, was deployed that budgets are better spent on teaching stuff that's useful rather than curatorial. If the purpose of language is communication, perhaps the death knell is not when the last native speaker dies (as with Manx or Cornish) but when people stop talking it to one another; after which, like Latin, it merits preservation only as a student's key to lost cultural knowledge rather than as a potentially viable medium of conversation.
Supporters, like that audience in the Tabard, equally see a sinister agenda behind official indifference. They talk up the value of language as a badge of regional identities, and are ever alert (as is much of France) to Parisian cultural imperialism. Paris French, in their midst, attracts the same sneers as Kelvinside Glaswegian. They are quick too to spot signs of suppression, justly so in the case of Catalan which was outlawed by both Franco in Spain and the Nazis in France. Recent years have seen a modest upsurge in Occitan music among the young, who champion it as a strike for diversity against nationalist voices like Marine Le Pen. Nevertheless, the decline continues.
Quite how far is hard to say. Occitan, according to one generous estimate, is spoken by 1.33% of the population, around 600,000 people. But 'spoken by' is a bottomlessly ambiguous phrase. Do you count those raised in Occitan-speaking homes who can understand it but never use it? What about those who pepper their French with odd words, just as many Scots season English with usefully untranslatable Scots words like dreich, cowp or clype?
The truth is that minority languages in France, as in other countries, are increasingly the preserve of elderly, rural die-hards. Youngsters here are as susceptible as any to Internet American. In the edgier banlieus
they even speak their own invented patois, verlan
, in which words are enunciated backwards for purposes of annoyance. But not Occitan. Here in a city of students and leading edge industries, you almost never hear spoken Occitan. Except on the number four tram.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster