Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Occitan is spoken in about one-third of France in the southern provinces of Languedoc, Provence, Limousin, Auvergne, Dauphiné and Gascony. Occitan dialects are a result of the Latin influence on the language of the southern Gauls, whereas French has stronger Frankish influences. Of the 14 million inhabitants of the Occitan region, it is estimated that 600,000 people are fluent, whilst 1,600,000 individuals are occasional speakers. The difficulty in estimating the number of speakers is complicated by the existence of other languages, which some consider variations of Occitan and others consider distinct languages. These include Gascon, Limousin, Provençal, Languedocian, Dauphinois and Auvergnat. The largest difference is between Gascon and Provençal.
Occitan was the language of the southern half of France until the thirteenth century when the French kings began to gain control. From the eleventh century the language was held in high esteem in some parts of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and England on account of the Troubadours, poet-musicians who sang of high ideals, social equality among classes and between men and women, and of courtly love. Occitan was said to be the favourite language of King Richard I of England. The Occitans were detested by the Roman Catholic Church, who fought against them in the Cathar Wars in the thirteenth century. The Cathars and Occitans were eventually defeated and persecuted. In 1539 French replaced Occitan in public administration.
From 1550 there was a literary renaissance but a distinction developed between the written and oral language. It was widely spoken until the Revolution in 1793. A second literary and cultural revival began in the second half of the nineteenth century, but this was led by intellectuals and was not a populist movement. Several cultural organizations were founded, including teachers’ and writers’ associations, the Félibrige association, the Societat d’Estudis Occitans and the Institut d’Estudis Occitans.
Occitan has no status in French law but the Deixonne Act of 1951, as well as subsequent decrees and circulars from the Ministry of National Education, allowed a minimal presence of regional languages in public education and left private schools to make their own decisions. Some public authorities have blocked measures to promote the language, whereas others have provided funding for cultural events and included provision for Occitan in some schools. The region of Languedoc-Roussillon has taken a leading role in supporting the language. In 1993 it set up a language service together with the University of Montpellier to help set and maintain teaching standards. The Institut d’estudis Occitans has the main role in setting standards in Occitan; it also publishes textbooks and teaching materials, as well as novels, poetry, reference books, plays, humour and children’s books.
The Partit Occitan was established in 1987 in Toulouse to protect the Occitan language and identity and to campaign on regional issues such as employment and the environment. It belongs to the Fédération Régions et Peuples Solidaires in France and campaigns in European elections as part of the European Free Alliance.
The European Union, through the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, has provided funding for the creation of an electronic dictionary of Occitan in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, for teacher and school events, and for the assistance of the private sector Calendretas, Occitan-language nursery and primary schools.
The use of Occitan in family and social settings seems to be in continual decline, but its presence in literature, language courses and teaching materials, on radio, the internet and in cultural events is increasing. No official documents are published in Occitan and it cannot be used in law courts. It is used informally by some local administrations in contacts with Occitan-speakers. There are some public signs in Occitan.
Occitan is used in some bilingual state schools as a medium of instruction at pre-primary and primary level. The language is also taught, although rarely, as a subject in schools where French is the only language of instruction. The 67 calendretas are private nursery and primary schools which are bilingual in French and Occitan. At state secondary level Occitan is offered as an optional subject. At university level, Occitan is used as a teaching medium in studies of Occitan language and literature. The language is also taught as a subject at university.
In 2012, tens of thousands of people marched in several French cities to voice their concerns around France’s endangered languages, including Occitan. Demonstrators were calling for the French government to enact the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and start officially recognising minority languages, such as Occitan. In some cities, Occitan street signs have been forbidden, and this appears to be symptomatic of a more widespread, blasé attitude towards minority languages which could eventually pose a threat to their survival. A further issue appears to be a difference of opinion among activists concerning the language itself. While academics generally hold that Occitan is a single language, some activists feel that dialects such as Gascon along the Atlantic coast and Auvergnat near the Upper Loire should be recognized as separate languages.
Updated September 2018
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