Before 1789, France was a loose community of regions, each with its own languages and dialects: Alsatian, Breton, Catalan, Corsican and perhaps 70 more. Occitan was the family of languages from Occitanie, the region that stretched from Bordeaux and the Pyrenées in the southwest to the Alps and northern Italy in the southeast. It and its several variants were linked to a rich creative history, particularly in literature and song.
Then came the French Revolution, and then Napoleon, and a new constitution that declared France “one people, one nation, one language.” Occitan all but disappeared.
But not completely. More than 200 years later, Occitan is still spoken in the French countryside and in the north of Italy, where it’s recognized as an official regional language. (A 2001 attempt by the French culture ministry to recognize regional languages was rejected by the country’s constitutional council.) No one really knows how many people use Occitan regularly because the French government has never done a survey. Unofficial estimates suggest that several hundred thousand speak one or another form of Occitan as a private, or “intimate” language, at home and among close friends. Almost nowhere in France is it used in the workplace.
Even the Occitan accent is effectively banned from public life. If one wants to get ahead in the French civil service, one must drop one’s Occitan or Provençal inflections. (Provençal is perhaps the most widely used variant of Occitan.) Today just a handful of private secondary schools offer classes in Occitan. A few cultural groups, inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning 19th century Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, quietly promote the language and literature.
The most visible – and audible – proponents of Occitan today are not linguists or history buffs, but contemporary musicians. These are no purists: their music blends modern folk music, the music of the medieval troubadors, Brazilian rhythms and, most notably, Jamaican reggae. The two groups featured in this piece – the Fabulous Trobadors from Toulouse and Massilia Sound System from Marseille – play highly danceable music whose often-humorous (and often-political) lyrics mix French with Occitan, so as not to alienate French-speaking audiences. Other groups add a dose of Beur, the popular Arabic spoken by North Africans all over France.
The result is a music that borrows cheerfully across centuries and borders – but that signals an increasingly serious disenchantment with the suppression of regional identities, languages and cultures.
– Julian Crandall Hollick