Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are an estimated 20,000 – 40,000 Occitan-speakers in 14 Piedmontese valleys in the Alps (provinces of Cuneo and Torino), in one community (Olivetta San Michele), and a few hamlets in the Liguria region (province of Imperia), and in one community (Guardia Piemontese) in the region of Calabria (province of Cosenza). These remote communities are traditionally dependent on agriculture.
Occitan is an Indo-European Romance language with three main varieties: northern Occitan, which comprises Limousin, Auvergnat and Alpine Provençal, central or southern Occitan, which comprises Languedocien and Provençal, and Gascon.
Occitan is also known as the lenga d’oc. Provençal became the predominant variety of Occitan through its literature which developed in the nineteenth century (see France). Provençal is spoken in the Val d’Aosta of Piedmont (see Aostans).
The presence of Occitan in the north-west of Italy probably derives from historical frontier established by the administrative divisions of the Roman Empire. Occitan was the language of the southern half of France, including this part of modern Italy, 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 troubadours were detested by the Roman Catholic Church, which fought against the Occitans 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 1142 to 1548 the marquisate of Saluzzo, a small Occitan community, enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, when it was conquered by Savoy.
The Occitan community in Calabria was established by members of the Waldensian or Vaudois movement, who emigrated there to escape religious persecution in northern Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the langue vaudoise – an artificial language which did not correspond to any specific local variant of Occitan – became the language of the most important documents of eastern Occitania. From the sixteenth century, Occitan competed with the Piedmontese dialect. Occitan was squeezed out of the lowest valleys by the increasing influence of the Piedmontese dialect and Italian. Occitan vocabulary and syntax was altered by these influence of these languages in the middle valleys and only remained intact in the highest and most remote valleys.
The Occitan autonomy movement is associated with resistance to Fascism. During World War II a clandestine journal was published in the mountain area of Piedmont, Il Pioniere Giornale Partigiano e Progressista. After the war the Associazione Soulestrelh, the Union dals Autonomistas Valadas Occitanas and Ousitanio Vivo were founded by Occitan liberationists, and this tradition has continued with many of the cultural organizations. Troubadour groups have maintained their traditional stance for political independence. Paratge is one of the latest political autonomy organizations. It has opted to be a movement rather than a political party.
Article 6 of the 1947 Italian Constitution guarantees protection for the linguistic minorities but there is no specific mention of Occitan. The region of Piedmont approved two laws in 1979 and 1990 to promote and protect the development of the linguistic and cultural heritage of Piedmont. The Piedmontese authorities provide limited financial aid for Occitanian associations. In 1999 the Italian government adopted a law setting out the means of protecting minorities, giving specific mention to the Occitans.
A considerable number of parents still pass on Occitan to their children, although for several decades the number of families who only use Occitan has been in constant decline. From the 1970s in some villages Occitan has been replaced by either Italian or the Piedmontese dialect. Occitan is not perceived as a modern language and young people tend to prefer Italian, which also gives them more employment and career opportunities.
However, there are many Occitan cultural associations which promote the language and culture, some of which receive financial support from municipal and regional governments and the European Union. The Occitan cultural associations are involved in organizing festivals, seminars and workshops, music prizes, live and recorded performances of music, dance and theatre, film, newsletters, journals and book publishing, and language courses. Many take an autonomist political stance. There are disagreements between the cultural organizations regarding the codification of the language. The Italian municipal and regional authorities have set up Espaci Occitan to provide information and links.
Occitan is taught as an optional subject outside the main curriculum in some pre-primary, primary and secondary schools, including the primary school of Santa Lucia di Monterosso Grana in Piedmont and in primary and secondary schools in Guardia Piemontese. There is some public funding for these courses from the local and provincial authorities. The Associazione Soulestrelh and the Saluzzo education office organized the first teachers’ in-service course in Occitan language and culture in 1993. Occitan language and culture are studied at several universities.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in