(This post was originally published on 8 October 2009)
When you enter villages and towns now in southern France, you are very likely to see bilingual roadsigns like the one above, in French and Occitan.
And there's the rub.
Very often, if you ask the locals here about Occitan, they'll laugh and say "Oh, you mean patois". But the word patois in French has very negative connotations: "a substandard form of the pure language, ie French"; "a dialect spoken by peasants and the ill-educated". The reason is that, as part of their drive to unify and centralise France over the centuries, it suited the French speakers from the north to denigrate the other languages that existed, including Occitan, and to get the speakers feel ashamed of their mother tongue.
In fact, of course, Occitan is a fully fledged member of the Romance language family, along with Castilian Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian and Portuguese, spread throughout a third of France, with a rich cultural heritage of over a thousand years. It is the language of the troubadours.
And yet it's an endangered language, in the sense that there are fewer people speaking it, and they are mostly older.
But what does it take to revive a language? The Welsh experience shows that both a top-down approach of legislation and institutional measures, combined with a bottom-up surge of opinion among those affected is necessary. For long regarded as the language of the rural poor and ill-educated, Welsh seemed doomed to extinction. But when the middle classes saw it as a way of asserting their Welshness, and took pride, for example, in sending their children to Welsh-medium schools, this had the effect, combined with legislation to promote the language, of assuring the language a living future.
Perhaps the decision makers in the French Ministry of Education should resist parents' pressure to introduce English at an ever earlier age, and start with Occitan instead. Children are smart. They can figure out later what subjects they will need, including English. In any case, solid linguistic research from elsewhere shows that precocious exposure to a foreign, as opposed to a vernacular, language is no guarantor of proficiency later.
And it might make le professeur Claude Hagège less grumpy about what he calls, with a breathtaking lack of academic rigour, "l'anglo-américain".
There is a heartening range of initiatives by committed occitanists to revive Occitan:
- the setting up of an Institute of Occitan Studies (IEO), funded by the central and regional governments;
- getting towns and villages to put up bilingual road signs;
- an IEO publishing and distribution company, based in Puylaurens, with an impressive range of titles (around a thousand) mostly in Occitan - novels, poetry, plays, children's and young people's books, dictionaries, text books, histories, audio and video;
- radio stations;
- language classes;
- resource centres;
- theatre groups;
Next week in the nearby town of Carcassonne there's to be a demonstration to demand the top-down measures (the setting up of an Occitan TV channel, and more investment in language classes, for example), as well as to instill a greater sense of pride among the locals about Occitan. The first demonstration in 2005 in Carcassonne attracted 10 000 people. The second, in Béziers in 2007, 20 000 people. This time, they're aiming for 30 000 people. Let's hope it succeeds. Occitan is a mellifluous, vibrant and important language.