When you imagine the south of France, you probably think of the French Riviera and fancy French villas… but not long ago this region wasn’t very French at all! People there spoke a language you might not have heard of: Occitan.
Occitan and its culture were still thriving in southern France just 150 years ago, and the French dialect spoken in southern France today—le français du Midi—includes many remnants of this language. If you know pastis (the liqueur) and pétanque (the famous ball game), then you know some Occitan-influenced French (my native language)!
But what happened to Occitan, and where did its speakers go?
Southern France before French
Occitan was spoken in southern France long before modern French arrived. Also called lenga d'òc (or langue d’oc in French), Occitan is a Romance language related to French, Spanish, and especially Catalan. It gained its fame during the Middle Ages as the language of medieval troubadours—the story-telling crooners of the day.
Even after French was declared the only official language of the French kingdom, Occitan remained the language of everyday life in southern France. It's what people spoke at home, at markets, and around town. Six dialects of Occitan developed, including Provençal (spoken in Provence), and a Provençal-speaking poet, Frédéric Mistral, even won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1904.
He and other poets in the region were especially active in promoting their language, and at the end of the 1800s, about 90% of people in southern France still considered Occitan their native language.
The problem with the Occitan language
But Occitan wasn’t the language of the French elite, who often regarded it as an inferior version of French. By the early 1900s, French had become the only language of government and education, and Occitan school children were punished if they spoke anything but French.
Given these pressures, it only took a few decades for people to completely shift to French as their everyday language. Today, all the dialects of Occitan are endangered, with four of them (including Provençal) classified as “severely endangered.” Children in Southern France don’t grow up speaking Occitan and few of them study it in school. Some artists still perform in Occitan, but very soon there may be no one at all who regularly uses it in everyday life.
Despite Occitan's long history, proud literary accomplishments, and influential culture, its preservation is not a high priority on the political agenda of today's French politicians.
Occitan changes southern French
Occitan speakers spent centuries living, trading, and working with French speakers, and this language contact is a common factor in language change. Occitan-French bilinguals naturally used pieces of their language in the French they spoke. (You might have noticed you do the same as you learn French, too.) This was the birth of le français du Midi!
This dialect of French shares a lot with Standard French—the kind you might hear in Paris—but you can note its distinct Occitan heritage in many words and pronunciations:
- fada (crazy): from Occitan fadat (touched by the fées, or "fairies"!)
- pétanque (popular ball game played with one’s feet inside a circle or semicircle): from Occitan pè (foot) + tanca (attach)
- pitchoun (little boy): from Occitan pichon (small)
- esquiché (crammed): from Occitan esquichar (to press firmly)
- cacou (young man who shows off and gets into trouble): from Occitan cacoua (youngest child)
- Not-so-silent "e": Many French words contain an e muet (silent "e"), and in Standard French, "e" is never pronounced at the end of the word—but in le français du Midi, many speakers do pronounce it! For example, in the south, voiture (car) is pronounced with 3 syllables (voi-tu-re) instead of the typical 2 (voi-ture), with the final "e" being pronounced like the "a" in English sofa. That means some words and names that sound identical in standard French (like Daniel for a man and Danielle for a woman) actually sound quite distinct in southern France!
- Nasal vowels: There are many nasal vowels in Standard French, in words like pain (bread) and enfant (child), but in le français du Midi, nasal vowels traditionally don't sound very nasal! For example, in the south, “ain” in pain sounds kind of like "ang" in American English pang.
- Intonation and rhythm: The typical melody of le français du Midi is also very different from Standard French, and it was inherited from Occitan as well. It contains more ups and downs, which makes it sound more lively.
Can you hear Occitan today?
The story of le français du Midi is both a beautiful testament to the tenacity of culture and language, and a tragic tale of language endangerment and lacking public policy. In my home community in southern France, Occitan’s soul is woven into the fabric of our daily speech, and that brings me some solace. Still, I feel a sense of loss for the decline of the language of my people’s past.