Occitania is the biggest nation without a state in Europe is. It is located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea in most of what nowadays is southern France, an Italian region called “Valadas”, and in Spain, in the Aran Valley.
What makes Occitania united as a nation is the common language. Although historically Occitania has never been politically united, sharing a common language has provided the different Occitan regions with a common identity; furthermore, the nation has been named after the language. During the Middle Ages, the language of Oc was the most cultivated language of all in Europe; sadly, the historical and violent French repression has highly endangered it.
Eric Roulet is a teacher of Occitan language in Gironda, Gascony. He is also one of the founders of Gric de Prat, a music band which aims to spread and strengthen the Occitan language and culture. Following NAZIOGINTZAs’ request, he has written a very complete article about the current situation of the Occitan language. The article can be found below:
“The Occitan language is a Latin language spoken in the south of the current French state, but also in the alpine valleys of Italy (six Occitan valleys) and in the Aran valley (Val d’Aran), a valley located in Catalonia ( see attached map).
Currently it is difficult to determine with certainty the number of speakers of the Occitan language; it is estimated at between two and three million. This is because the use of Occitan has been subject to repression for several centuries, mainly from the French State. Such has been the degree of repression that today we may consider that the current survival of Occitan is a miracle.
It was at the end of the Roman Empire when a language little influenced by the Germanic invasions was formed, it was gradually formed in the south of present-day France: it was formed from Latin – “the Roman language” – and did not take the name of “Langue d’Oc” and then “Occitan” until much later.
Throughout the Middle Ages, until the end of the independence of the Duchy of Aquitaine (1453), Occitan civilization shone throughout Europe as the birthplace of troubadours: great lords who revolutionized Western thought by inventing the feeling of love (fin’amor) or “amour courtois” in French, and social and political thought (lo paratge = equality between sexes and social classes, meritocracy …) well ahead of its time.
Troubadours used a united Occitan language, unified in both its spelling and lexicon, and it is this language that would gradually be adopted as an administrative and commercial language.
The spoken language was divided into six dialects (see the map). They still exist and are all practiced by their speakers.
But, although there was a real feeling of cultural unity, the future Occitan territory was not politically united. Three or four different political settings coexist: Aquitaine in the west, the county of Toulouse in the center, the kingdom of Provence in the west and the county of Barcelona in the south.
In the 13th century, under the pretext of religious heresy (Catharism), the county of Toulouse was invaded by the King of France who, after a war of more than 50 years, annexed the country. Later the county of Barcelona was oriented to the south.
The duchy of Aquitaine, protected by its dukes (also kings of England since the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry Plantagenêt), remained a state independent of the kings of France who, nevertheless, did not cease to covet its wealth (the period called the Hundred Years’ War). After 130 years of war, on July 17, 1453, the Anglo-Gascon army was conclusively defeated in the “Battle of Castillon”: thus, the Duchy of Aquitaine was annexed to the Kingdom of France.
For its part, the kingdom of Provence would be bequeathed to France by its king René, who died without heirs.
As of that moment, although it was true that Occitan was still the language spoken by all social classes and used for written needs, it was no longer the language of power. France could have developed as a multilingual state but that would have been without taking into account the fierce centralism of the kings of France and their republican successors:
In 1536, by “the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts”, King François 1st imposed French on written texts. Thus, forbidden in administrative and commercial life, Occitan could no longer exist except in literature … The orthography inherited from the Middle Ages was gradually forgotten, each writer writing as he saw fit. The linguistic and cultural unity was broken and the written language fragmented in towards the different dialects.
– The French revolution consolidated these positions and declared “war against the dialect”, while the murder of the federalist Girondins definitively installed the Jacobin centralist power in Paris.
– The Third Republic, at the end of the 19th century, would find the means to act even more deeply against Occitan: instituting compulsory schooling in French (Ferry laws). The State attacked the oral language, which was still used by a large majority of the population. Children who spoke Occitan at school were beaten or punished. At the same time, to kill any regional sentiment, the State fabricated a “national history” from scratch by denying or modifying all events that ran contrary to the myth of the united and historical nation. At the beginning of the 20th century, the southern populations were deprived of their history and language. This devaluation of Occitan made the population ashamed of their own culture which, consequently, needed to be eliminated. For the French state, the fight was considered won: henceforth the imposed silence would be enough to erase and allow the problem to be forgotten.
Following the conquests, a certain resistance had been organized in Occitania, but from the beginning the destruction of the feeling of cultural unity, the absence of political power and collective feeling directed the struggle towards the field of intellectual production: survival would be through the work of writers and artists. Very curiously, given the context, the Occitan language would never fail to provide abundant and high-quality literature: here we had an important tool for the reclaiming of dignity. However, up until the present, this intellectual revolt has never been aimed at provoking or facing political struggles that could have activated a feeling of cultural unity or reconquest.
Despite the increase in linguistic repression throughout the 19th century, literary expression and the defense of Occitan appeared in that century: in 1815, the popular Bordeaux poet Méste Verdier was awarded the title of “professional Gascon poet”; however, he flatly denied that he had even a minimum of quality as a writer. A little later, the Agen native Jasmin, a romantic poet who was a friend of Lamartine and Liszt, acquired a fame that crossed national borders by reciting his works in the Gasconian language in public. Jasmin endorsed the cause of language defense but remained alone. These two poets and many others, less known in their time, were pioneers.
Later the rebirth took place in Provence in an environment in which seven young Provencal poets stand out, including the famous Frédéric Mistral (Nobel Prize for literature in 1904). Together, they founded the “Félibrige” society, a society whose objective was above all to promote literary and poetic production. In all parts of the territory of the Occitan (and Catalan) language, societies “Félibrige” were born, and would generate thousands of vocations. Timidly, the consciousness of a certain linguistic unity was reborn. The Occitan language was spoken. Félibrige society was also at the birth of a vast renaissance of folklore: a collection of popular traditions, stories and other songs, folk groups that try to create a stage for the traditions. Despite its motto of “conserve”, the Félibrige movement failed to stop the deterioration in use of the language and to impose its teaching, which remained prohibited until the middle of the 20th century.
It was within Félibrige, and mainly in Languedoc, that the Occitan movements were born in the second half of the 20th century. Understanding Felibrige’s contradictions or imperfections, they tried to remedy them by doing considerable work both theoretically and in the field of popularization.
On the theoretical side, modern movements immediately posited a rediscovered unity of Occitan culture, beyond (or including) dialects into a larger whole. In doing so, they invented or reinvented the word “Occitania” to designate the cultural whole (or the Occitan people?). Medieval writing was modernized and reintroduced into use (despite the persistent resistance). Many grammar books, dictionaries, learning methods were published as literary publications were increasing. Modern literature succeeded the nonsense.
Also on the historical level, modern movements were dedicated to returning their history to the Occitan regions and fighting against the lies of the State. Unfortunately, at this historical level, the work remained unfinished: being mainly of Languedoc origin, modern Occitan movements neglected the history of the other Occitan regions, in particular Aquitaine (despite considerable work done since the 19th century by historians from there). As a consequence and somewhat irritated with these modern movements, Bordeaux circles concerned with tradition would remain outside the Occitan movement.
In terms of popularization, the work of the Occitan movements is considerable, making it possible to move from a purely intellectual and restricted distribution to an almost general popular sentiment in Languedoc and, to a lesser extent, in other Occitan regions. Thus, the sectors of intervention multiplied:
– In the field of education, after many battles, Occitan was finally admitted to national education in the form of a valid option in high school (provision unfortunately canceled last year) but also since the 1980s in the form of bilingual classes. At the same time, associative schools have been created that defend linguistic immersion, the “Calandretas”, currently around sixty. Today the number of children involved remains negligible compared to the level of need and the number of schools teaching Occitan is ridiculously small compared to the national schools.
We are very far from having saved the language. The number of young speakers cannot replace the generations that naturally spoke Occitan. Family transmission practically does not exist and only education can guarantee passing it on to future generations.
– In the artistic field, around the 1970s the first Occitan singers appeared: an incredible “revolution” for a language so long excluded from an exclusively Parisian musical creation. This appearance was maintained and the “Occitan” artists are still very numerous, despite having a very small audience (with some exceptions). They maintain, valley by valley, a certain social presence, despite having no real recognition from public or private institutions.
– At an institutional level, progress has been minimal: the Occitan language does not yet have official recognition (apart from heritage recognition) and is not significantly present in any institution, including the regional one. The greatest contempt for Occitan reigns, which translates into a silence probably as destructive as the educational repression of the previous century. Outside Languedoc or certain islets (Béarn, Val d´Aran), the vast majority of the Occitan population ignores the very existence of the language. French Jacobin centralism remains ubiquitous, from a concrete point of view, but also in the inability to conceive of an independent life other than Parisian.
Decentralization laws (1983), by giving a small role to regions and departments, led us to think of a resurgence of culture within the Occitan movements. In some places, conscious local and regional elected officials have made some progress: the emergence of bilingual signage, the protection of certain artistic activities, the financing of Calandretas, etc. But many regions have largely remained out of the movement, particularly in northern Occitan (Limousin and Auvergne) or in the Gironde.
The more or less recent creation, by certain local authorities, of specific institutions for the protection of Occitan culture raised real hopes in the early days but very soon “notoriety” took priority. These institutions are expensive to maintain with no tangible results. Anger is on the rise …
– On the political front, Occitanism has never been able to lead to a form of mass nationalism, and this can be understood because it is a culture that has never been that of a single people. Occitan identity remains to be built.
The PNO (Party of the Occitan Nation) was founded in the second half of the 20th century. Up until recently, it had developed a overall view of a plural identity that can only correspond to the culture of Oc. But it remains extremely limited, like the autonomous Occitan party (PO), which tries to cling to the movement that defends the environment.
– Occitan’s presence in the media remains minimal: very few shows in public and nothing in the private sector. It is clear that Occitan does not sell well, neither for one nor for the other. Again the greatest contempt reigns … Then specific media were created: radio, magazines, telematic newspapers or television channels on the Internet … But the transmission remains extremely limited .
Attacked on a theoretical and practical level, the Occitan movements mark time and are increasingly questioned:
– On a theoretical level, the predominance of the languedocian language, more or less real and more or less declared, irritates, particularly in the Gasconic speaking domains. Some Languedoc associations are accused of “centralism” at the Occitan level and of wanting to impose their dialect as the language of reference. In fact, the trend existed and still exists: choosing the central dialect to unify the language. Similarly, some historians, as we have already pointed out, try (without saying too much) to place Toulouse as the capital of Occitania.
When, by referendum in 2013, the Toulouse region was renamed “Occitania”, the other regions felt effectively excluded from the whole.
Such positions can only give rise to rejection or disinterest on the part of the excluded, and when these claims are connected to linked interests, the rejection is massive, even aggressive.
Only dialogue will allow the reconstruction of Occitan on theoretical bases accepted by all but it is clear that silence and contempt often take the place of dialogue.
– On the practical level, many defenders of Occitan culture denounce the “capture” of administrative or associative functions, breaking with reality on the ground. Demands for transparency are emerging as some disappointed activists walk away.
However, the Occitan culture should not be considered as lost, because although it is true that trust is declining, sympathy for that culture and awareness of the need to protect it is increasing in the population. It is an inevitable historical movement, evidenced by the proliferation of individual initiatives taken independently of any associative or partisan structure. The nursery for young broadcasters, however small, will probably be the relief for the future.
The French state observes (and maintains) this state of affairs, taking advantage of the inability to organize to constitute a real counterweight: advances are gradually eroded, due to contempt or negligence (for example, the multiplication of competing school options in Occitan, the “temporary” elimination of the only TV program or the baccalaureate examination, etc.). No official recognition is announced, not even the signing by France of the European Convention on the Languages Law. Similarly, local authorities, due to real pressure, are reluctant to act: is the risk of unpopularity not greater than the benefit?
Behind the facade of Emmanuel Macron’s message, published by the Liberación newspaper, “regional languages play their role in the roots that are the strength of the regions. We will perpetuate their teaching”, Pic.twitter.com/9w2yG220rf (@EmmanuelMacron) 21 June 2018. From this sentence it follows that the so-called regional languages are submitted to the“democratic” steamroller.”