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Friday, March 11, 2016

Aucamville Project 14: Qu'es aquò?

Aucamville/Aucamvila, Tarn-et-Garonne.  Photo by Daurade
For the 0% of the French population that only speaks Occitan, the Tarn-et-Garonne has conveniently placed a new sign at the entrance to our village, just at the end of the Fondemenge cul-de-sac.  I see this sign at 1 o'clock (biplane tail gunner-wise) every time I leave the confines of our cozy little hamlet/a.k.a. nest of vipers.  This is a good thing for those non-existent Occitan monolinguals, it'd be hard to know you were in "Aucamvila" if you only had a sign for "Aucamville."  Una soleta lenga basta pas jamai!

Occitan is a Romance language spoken in southern France, some valleys in northeast Italy, Monaco, and the Val d'Aran in Spain.  In the Val d'Aran  it is an official language and the only place I have seen it used on street signs and stores in a widespread way.  The region where this language is spoken is unofficially called Occitania.

Many scholars don't see Occitan as one unified language, and others include Catalan in the same family; indeed, some dialects of Occitan are closer to Catalan than they are to other Occitan dialects.  In fact, until the end of the 19th century, Catalan was often considered an Occitan dialect.  Don't tell a Catalan that, though.  Anyway, this could have been a politically-driven interpretation pushed to dampen Catalonia's nationalist aspirations.

There is a kind of friendly rivalry among both peoples where Occitania meets Catalonia in the southwest of France, but there is more deeply a kinds of solidarity between them as threatened minority languages, though Catalan has flourished in the last 50 years and seems here to stay.  Things get really interesting in the natural border between the two, the Pyrénées.  Every valley seems to have its own distinct dialect more or less influenced by Spanish, Catalan or French.  The people here will all have a smattering of French and Spanish and Catalan.  This is especially true of Andorra, where all three languages are spoken widely though Catalan remains the language with which Andorrans identify the most.  Andorran, however, are a minority in their own land, and a proper tally of ts linguistic groups might reveal that Portuguese is also widely-spoken among the Principality's guest workers.  Occitan and Catalan quite naturally blend elements from both Spanish and French, and they blend with one another as well.  It wouldn't be surprising to see Portuguese enter the mix; thanks to the Troubadours, legends from northern Portugal also flourish in the southwest of France, especially in Gascony, and in Asturiano, a.k.a. "Bable" (Babel?), they pronounce "o's" like "u's" ("quesu" and "vasu" for "queso" and "vaso")  -- much like in Occitan.

Google Earth
The Catalans, who have fiercely protected their language since the depredations of Franco, have officially recognized a form of Occitan called Aranès in the Val d'Aran.  Here you'll see signs in Spanish and Catalan, as well as some French.  But you also see signs in Aranès.  In Toulouse, street signs are in French and Occitan, and neighboring municipalities often have a second sign at the edge of town with its name in Occitan:  Toulouse - Tolosa (pronounced Toulousa -- remember to "o" sound like a "u").  But these French examples are more a tip of the hat to history; it's not really a part of the quotidian linguistic reality:  the Town Hall is the "Mairie" not the "Ajuntament".  Even in the Val d'Aran, I'm not sure how widely it's spoken.  Dominic Smith concludes that Aranès probably has "the brightest future" for all the Occitan dialects, but that it seems to be losing ground to Castilian Spanish or other more "practical" languages.  Some schools in the southwest of France have offered Occitan as an elective beginning in middle school, and there are bilingual programs and even Occitan primary schools known as Calandretas (which though private, are free).  But elective and bilingual programs are being cut as belts tighten and parents increasingly favor focusing on languages such as English.  Toulouse has become less provincial and isolated, attracting foreigners such as myself and French people from other regions who are not as connected to the language as people with deep roots here.  Very few people speak it, especially outside the home, although a few phrases are commonly heard at the café.

From Wikipedia: "Occitania" with its major dialects
Occitan has at various times been known as Limousin, Languedocien, Gascon, and Provençal, but nowadays these appellations refer to dialects.  Other dialects include Auvernat, Gascon, which include Aranès and Béarnese; there is also an Alpine dialect.  The Toulousain dialect is called Moundi.  A clear-cut taxonomy of these dialects is difficult and there are differing classifications of them, just as there are disagreements over the wider question of their relationship to Catalan.

There are two principal written standards:  a classical norm and one created by Frédéric Mistral in the early 20th century.  The Mistral standard is based on Provençal and similar to French -- both of which have led to criticism from later Occitanists.  Mistral is largely unknown outside of -- and within -- France, but he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1904, for his poems in Occitan. 

Attempts to standardise the spoken language have been a 20th century phenomenon and to me, doesn't reflect the historical and even current reality of the language.  Some speakers reject this process altogether because they take pride in their way of speaking it, which may differ from even a neighboring village (or may have differed -- it would be hard to hear this in action).  The French are very attached to and strongly identify with their "terroir" -- a connection often more profound than they have to the Revolutionary-era departments.

Proposed flag for an idependent Occitania.

Some Occitanists are cultural flag-bearers, but for others there is a political element to their "Occitanism".  This tends to be very regionalist and while some call themselves nationalists, they bear little in common with the far right the word usually describes.  On the contrary, they tend to celebrate multiculturalism within their own borders and feel like a distinct cultural element of France's melting pot (France doesn't seem to have taken to the "salad bowl theory -- Occitanists usually self-identify as French as readily as Occitan; in fact very few see themselves Occitan at all, but Languedocien, Gascon, or Provençal, etc.)  They tend to be strongly in favor of decentralization,; conscious of the fact that Paris has suppressed their language and their culture, they favor local autonomy.  Standardization of the language is philosophically incompatible with this viewpoint.

Proposed flag for an independent Catalonia; the Estelada or "Lone Star" (1918)
In Catalonia, the people have struggled to maintain their separate identity from Madrid, and language is a critical part of that effort; that is why they have allowed the Val d'Aran to make Aranès their official language and to recognize it's autonomous government, called the Conselh Generau 5General Council).  It's status is actually unique in Catalonia; it's basically a comarca, or county, but with a few additional powers.  This is both a nod to its unique cultural identity and also its isolation; until not so many years ago the valley was cut off from the rest of the world during the winter months.  A tunnel finally connected it to the rest of Spain year-round.  I have already mentioned there is a measure of Catalan / Occitan solidarity based on cultural similarities and their shared struggle as minority languages, but there are deep political roots dating back to the Middle Ages.  Toulouse had far more dealings and affinity with Barcelona than Paris for centuries; it's only been a relatively short time that Toulouse or even the south has been part of France.

Occitan was once the language of a culture which, compared to the north, was arguably more artistically refined; a culture in which Jews, heretics and soothsayers were generally more tolerated; and where women had the right to inherit and manage property.  It was once the language of poetry and songs the troubadours spread its throughout Iberia, traveling the St. James Way.  Because the southerners did not adhere to the custom of primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited all the domains of the father, but a system in which property was divided among all the children, the Midi was a patchwork of tiny fiefs, dwarfed by the vast holdings of the King of France and his vassals.  The abundance of little holdings meant an abundance of small armies; to go to war wasn't  matter of calling up a couple of powerful vassals but trying to wrangle up and hold together far more plentiful forces with varying allegiances, rivalries, petty squabbles and power games.  More refined or not, they proved no match for the French. 

The northern crusades against the south were essentially land grabs propagandized as fights against heresy (Catharism above all) and were bound up with the French version of manifest destiny, not to expand west beyond the horizon, but turn up all the corners of a map of Gaul so that they curled back and touched each other at the tips just above Paris.  This might help explain the modern-day Occitanist's sympathy for political devolution.  People have longer memories in Europe, but this centralizing tendency was an obsession during the Revolution.  Louis the XIV said "I am the state".  It was highly centralized, around his person.  This was true of the Medieval kings, but they were more itinerant, the court and thus the center of the Kingdom was wherever the king happened to be.  Louis XIV might have agreed, but by this time he had become almost synonymous with Versailles; the Revolution re-centered it on Paris, not a man, and they ran roughshod over regional variation to make this vision a reality:  the metric system replaced older and local systems, the new departments replaced traditional regions which had been named for the aristocrats who controlled them, or vice versa:  Armagnac, Foix, Corbières, etc.  The elderly and even some middle-aged folks will still tell tales of getting hit with a stick for speaking "patois".  There's a famous photo of a school, a roofed-over area, a wall painted with the words "Speak French, Be Clean" which is actually quite sad.  This is in Catalan France, but the same attitude was held in Occitan France as well.

Aiguatébia-Talaus school

The campaign has worked.  It is a dying language.  Native speakers are mostly elderly; three of my neighbors who spoke it are either dead or have succumbed to Alzheimer's.  There was an Occitanist wave of Basque or Breton-style nationalism in the 70's, and there are still some people of that generation who speak and teach Occitan -- many of them in the aforementioned threatened bilingual programs.  Some younger people, determined to preserve their heritage, are also learning Occitan and at least one bar in Toulouse encourages the use of Occitan within its walls.  Local radio and TV have programs in Occitan and local signage is often bilingual.  There is an Occitan community -- several Occitanist political parties and institutes of Occitan studies -- but they don't represent a living language of daily life.  It's not even the predominant language in the Val d'Aran and many French people -- its speakers among them -- don't consider it a "real" language at all.

Only 1.5 to 2 million people speak the language, but it can be found in some fairly far-flung places.  Forty Occitan-speaking, poverty-stricken families from Aveyron established Pigüé, Argentina in 1884.  Protestant Waldenses from Italy fleeing persecution established communities in the U.S., Uruguay, Argentina, and Germany.  One Occitan-speaking group left in 1893 and established what would be become Valdese, N.C.  Both groups brought their Occitan with them.  That means in the Americas, there are traces of both the Alpine and Languedocien dialects of Occitan.  The language is still spoken in Pigüé, but I'm not sure about Valdese.  Cathy Pons' thesis dissertation in 1990 might be an indication:  Language death among Waldensians of Valdese, North Carolina.   

It may well be that soon all we'll have of this language are some field recordings, street signs, and a few die-hards by which to remember what was once the leading cultural language in Europe.

Some phrases in Occitan (w/audio files) 

Coda:
Looking for more information on the leader of the Aveyron colonists, I came across something  interesting.  According to Les aveyronnais dans la Pampa: fondation, développement et vie de la colonies, Pigüé was a hotbet of occultism, Freemasonry and political radicalism starting in the 1890's -- just after the Aveyronaises arrived.  The book mentions the "virulent" protests of the Masonic Logia Emilio Zola against the installation of the Catholic Frères des Ecoles-Chrétiens  in 1905.  

This leads me to wonder what role, if any, Freemasonry has played in the Catalan and Occitan independence movements.  The Catalan independence flag is called the Estelada, or Lone Star, and was inspired by Cuba's flag.  We know that the Cuban flag was designed by a Freemason and incorporated Masonic symbolism, and that the Catalan movement looked carefully to the Cuban independence fight as a bellwether of their own chances if they chose to take on Madrid.  The Estelada has inspired other Spanish separatist movements to adopt the same lone star as a symbol, just as it was inspired by Cuba's flag, itself just one in a long-line of "lone star" flags used by independence movements led by Freemasons in the Caribbean, South and Central America, Florida, and above all, Texas. I know that all sounds rather wingnut, so please see Lone Star Republics for details.  I should also mention that there are a couple of "lone star" flags in Africa.  Need I say that in both theory and practice, Freemasons were all over these African movements as well?  Really, the number of flags is quite significant, so much so that it's increasingly hard for me to say that one flag was inspired by another, but it's more like one guiding ideology led the revolutionaries who waved them to put them on their flags.  So, piqued by that anecdote and that flag, I'm gonna dig around a bit and see if Freemasonry is involved, or not.

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