Occitan language

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Occitan (langue d'oc)
Spoken in: France, Spain, Italy
Region: Europe
Total speakers: 1,939,000
Ranking: not in top 100
Genetic classification: Indo-European


Official status
Official language of: officially recognized in Spain
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1 oc
ISO 639-2 oci
SIL Varies
See also: LanguageList of languages

Occitan, or langue d'oc is a Romance language, or a set of Romance languages, spoken mainly in southern France. All of its subdivisions are generally mutually intelligible. It is spoken as a first language by about two million people in France, Italy, and Spain (Ethnologue, 2005). It is estimated that up to seven million people in France understand the language.

In France Occitan is the customary name given to dialects of Occitan spoken in the South-West while the dialects spoken in the South-East are called Provençal.

In the English-speaking world, "Provençal" is often used to refer to all dialects of Occitan as well as to medieval versions of Occitan known as "Langue d'oc".


Origin of name

The name Occitan comes from oc, the medieval Occitan word for yes, as opposed to northern French or langue d'oïl (the ancestor of the modern French oui). The word oc came from Latin hoc, while oïl originated from Latin hoc ille.

Linguistic status

Scholars dispute whether Occitan constitutes a single language, and some characterize the langues d'oc as a family of distinct languages rather than dialects. As Pierre Bec notes in La langue occitan (1963, p. 48), Gascon and Catalan pose a particular problem in Iberian-Roman classification: "It is difficult [...] to separate Catalan from Occitan if one does not grant the same status to Gascon." The most neutral nomenclature would be to speak of the Occitano-Roman linguistic group, inclusive of both Occitan and Catalan.

Traditional Occitan-speaking areas

Occitan around the world

Occitan-speaking colonies developed in southern Italy (Calabria), Spanish Basque country (Gascon was spoken in the center of San Sebastián until the beginning of the twentieth century), Germany (duchy of Württemberg), Argentina, Uruguay, and the United States (western states such as Idaho and Oregon). Also, in the regions of Houma and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Cajun speakers use a variety of Occitan. Certain colonies still use Occitan today, or a dialect composed of Occitan mixed with the local language.

Linguistic characterization

Jules Ronjat has sought to characterize Occitan by 19 principal criteria, as generalized as possible. Of those, 11 are phonetic, 5 morphologic, one syntactic, and two lexical. Close vowels (French: pâte, rose, yeux) are rare or absent in Occitan. This characteristic often carries through to an Occitan speaker's French, leading to a distinctive méridional accent. Unlike French, it is a pro-drop language allowing the omission of the subject (canti: I sing; cantas you sing). Among these 19 discriminating criteria, 7 are different from Spanish, 8 from Italian, 12 from Franco-provençal, and 16 from French.

Differences between Occitan and Catalan

Writing systems differ significantly between the two languages, as most writing in Occitan today is in a system resembling that used in medieval times, of Roman origin; an alternative system more closely resembles that of French. Catalonians, on the other hand, use a system centered on their own pronunciation (no final 'n' on català, for example).

The political, cultural, and religious aspect is significant as well. Catalonia, in contrast to Occitania, has long benefited from independent statehood tied to strong economic development. Additionally, Occitan's territory is generally contained by the borders of France, while Catalan's is contained in Spain. More recently, the languages continue to develop separately: Catalan's dialects continue to approach Spanish, while Occitan's approach French. The significance of French and Spanish around the world weighs heavily on these lesser-spoken languages in the heart of France and Spain.

The Occitano-Roman linguistic group

Despite differences that have arisen primarily over the past few centuries, Occitan and Catalan remain mutually comprehensible. The two peoples share historical, cultural, and amicable heritage.

The combined Occitano-Roman area is 259,000 km² and represents 23 million speakers. The regions are not equal in terms of language speakers. In France, no more than a quarter of the population in counted regions speak Occitan well, though around half can understand it (Bec, 1969, pp.120–121). In Catalonia, nearly three quarters of the population speak Catalan and 95% understand it.

Origins of Occitan

Because Occitan is the most central of the Romance languages, external influences could have impeded its birth and development, making it only a tributary of standard Latin. However, many factors favored its development as a language of its own.

  • Mountains and seas: The range of Occitan is bounded naturally by the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Massif Central, the Pyrenees, and the Alps.
  • Buffer zones: Very dry land, marshes, and areas otherwise impractical for farming and resistant of colonization provide further separation (territory between Loire and Garonne, the Aragon desert plateau).
  • Constant populations: Some Occitan-speaking peoples are descended from people living in the region since prehistory (Bec, 1963).
  • Little Celtic influence (Bec, 1963)
  • Ancient and long-term Roman influence: Julius Caesar once said that the people of Aquitaine could teach the Romans themselves to speak Latin more correctly. According to Müller, "France's linguistic separation began with Roman influence" (Bec, 1963, pp. 20, 21)
  • A separate lexicon: Although Occitan is mid-way between Gallo-Roman and Ibero-Roman language groups, it has "around 550 words inherited from Latin that do not exist in the langues d'oïl nor in franco-provençal" (Bec, 1963, 20, 21).
  • Little germanization: "The Frankish lexicon and its phonetic influence often end above the oc/oïl line" (Bec, 1963, 20, 21)
  • Variety: Occitania has always been a linguistic crossroads, thanks to its commercial importance. The Spanish rabbi Benjamin of Tudela described Occitania in 1573 as a marketplace bringing together "Christians and Muslims, where Arabs, Lombard merchants, visitors from Rome, from all parts of Egypt, the lands of Israel, Greece, Gaul, Genoa, and Pisa. All languages are spoken there" (Géo magazine, 2004, p. 73)

The language's assets

A rich lexicon

A comparison of terms and word counts between languages is not easy, as it is impossible to precisely count the number of words in a language. (See Lexicon, Lexeme, Lexicography for more information.)

Some have claimed around 450,000 words exist in the Occitan language, a number comparable to English (The Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged with 1993 addenda reaches 470,000 words, as does the Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.) The Merriam-Webster Web site estimates that the number is somewhere between 250,000 and 1 million words.

The magazine Géo (2004, p. 79) claims that American English literature can be more easily translated into Occitan than French, excluding modern technological terms that both languages have integrated.

A comparison of the lexical content can find more subtle differences between the languages. For example, Occitan has 128 synonyms related to cultivated land, 62 for wetlands, and 75 for sunshine (Géo).

The language went through an eclipse in the Industrial revolution, as the vocabulary of the countryside became less important. At the same time, it was disparaged as a patois.

Speakers of the language, dedicated to keeping Occitan a rich and healthy language, have developed a modern vocabulary. The Occitan word for web is oèb, for example. Thanks to these efforts, the language continues to thrive and isn't suffering the decline of one incapable of describing the surrounding world.

Learning foreign languages

Native speakers of Occitan are predisposed, according to Géo magazine (p. 79), to learning other languages.

Furthermore, Occitan's geography as a central Romance language facilitates comprehension of neighboring languages (Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.) Among languages in its family, Occitan has the most points in common with the others. Below is a comparison of Occitan (central dialect) with other Romance languages:

Common words in Romance langues, with English for Reference
Latin French Italian Spanish Occitan Catalan (Central) Portuguese Romanian English
clavis clef/clé chiave llave/clave clau clau chave cheie key
nox nuit notte noche nuèit nit noite noapte night
cantare chanter cantare cantar cantar cantar cantar cânta sing
capra chèvre capra cabra cabra cabra cabra capră goat
lingua langue lingua lengua lenga llengua lingua limbă language
platea place piazza plaza plaça plaça praça piaţă plaza
pons pont ponte puente pònt pont ponte punte bridge
ecclesia (also basilica) église chiesa iglesia glèisa església igreja biserică church
caseus (Vulgar Latin formaticum) fromage formaggio queso formatge formatge queijo caş cheese

Languages or dialects?

The actual use of the term Occitan seems rather confusing. Some authors consider that Occitan is a family of languages, including:

which are seen as separate languages. Béarnais is considered as a dialect of Gascon.

Many linguists and almost all Occitan writers disagree with the view that Occitan is a family of languages and think that Limousin, Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocien and Provençal, and Alpine Provençal are dialects of a single language.

Despite the differences in these languages or dialects, most of the speakers can understand usage from the other dialects. The same is true about Catalan, as some linguists consider Occitan and Catalan to be two varieties of the same language.

In France Occitan is used for all the dialects spoken, while Provençal is used for the dialects spoken in the South-East, the Rhône River (Rose in Occitan) being more or less the border with the notable exception of Nîmes.

The term Provençal is also used by English, but according to linguistic classification Provençal is just one of the dialects grouped under the label Occitan, the variant of the Provence region, the literary dialect used by Frédéric Mistral and the Félibrige.

Linguistic science contradicts the popular belief that Provençal and Occitan are two separate languages, a belief that could be traced back to Frédéric Mistral. Despite the fact that Mistral himself was a republican, the agenda of the Felibrige was to promote a revival of the Provençal tongue, which was largely in contradiction with the republican ideal of reinforcing the unity of France by enforcing the use of French language to the exclusion of all other languages. The claim that Provençal and Occitan were two languages was probably made by the conservative members to avoid integrating South-West members in the Felibrige as the South-West of France was (and remained for a long time) a region strongly supporting the left-wing of the republicans.

Provençal is also used as a synonym for Occitan.

History of Occitan

Occitan was the vehicle for the first vernacular poetry of medieval Europe, that of the troubadors. With the gradual imposition of French royal power over its territory, Occitan declined in status from the 14th century on. Its greatest decline was during the French Revolution, where diversity of languages was seen as a threat.

Usage in France

Though it was still an everyday language of most of the rural population of the South well into the 20th century, it had been replaced in more formal usage by French. According to the 1999 census, there are 610,000 native speakers and perhaps another million persons with some exposure to the language. Native speakers of Occitan are to be found mostly in the older generations. Ethnic activism, particularly the Occitan-language preschools, the Calandretas, have reintroduced the language to the young.

Usage outside France

In the Val d'Aran, a valley in the north of Catalonia (in north-eastern Spanish State), Aranese (a dialect of Occitan) is treated as an official language, together with Catalan and Spanish. In Italy Occitan is also spoken in some Alpine valleys of the Province of Cuneo in Piedmont. Occitan-speaking colonies have existed in Calabria (Italy) since the 14th century, and in Württemberg (Germany) since the 18th century, the latter as a consequence of the Camisard war.

Features of Occitan

Among the diachronical features of Occitan as a Romance language:

  • Unlike French, stressed A of Latin is preserved (Latin mare > Oc. mar, but > Fr. mer).
  • Like French, changed Latin U to [y] and shifted the series of back vowels U>y, o>u O>o.
  • Gascon changed initial Latin F to aspirated [h] (Latin filiu > Gascon Oc. hilh), like medieval Spanish did (Gascon and Spanish were under Basque influence).
  • Other lenition and palatalisation phenomena shared with other western Romance languages, especially with Catalan.

Occitan Orthography

There are two orthographies currently used for Occitan, one (known as classical) which is based on that of Mediaeval Occitan, and one (sometimes known as mistralian, due to its use by the Felibres, including Mistral) which is based on modern French orthography. There is some conflict between users of each system.

The classical orthography has the advantage of maintaining a link with earlier stages of the language, and reflects the fact that Occitan is not a variety of French. It also allows speakers of one dialect of Occitan to write intelligibly for speakers of other dialects (e.g. the Occitan for day is written jorn in the classical orthography, but could be jour, joun or journ, depending on the writer's origin, in mistralian orthography).

The mistralian orthography has the advantage of not forcing Occitan speakers who are already (as is usually the case) literate in French to learn an entirely new system. It has also been used by a number of eminent writers, particularly in Provençal.

The digraphs lh and nh, used in the classical orthography, were adopted by the Portuguese norm.

Dante and Occitan

Dante was the first to have used the term of "lingua d'oco." He raised the notion of langue d'oc (Occitan), the langue d'oil (French), and the langue des si (Italian). He based it on each language's use of "yes." In the first, "yes" was oc, the second was oil, and si was used for the Italian dialects. The three terms came from Latin: hoc for the first, hoc ille for the second, and sic for the third.

Occitan quotes

One of the most notable passages of Occitan in Western literature occurs in the 26th canto of Dante's Purgatorio in which the troubadour Arnaut Daniel responds to the narrator:

«Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman, / qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire. / Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan; / consiros vei la passada folor, / e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan. / Ara vos prec, per aquella valor / que vos guida al som de l'escalina, / sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor»

The above phrase, translated:

So pleases me your courteous demand, / I cannot and I will not hide me from you. / I am Arnaut, who weep and singing go;/ Contrite I see the folly of the past, /And joyous see the hoped-for day before me. / Therefore do I implore you, by that power/ Which guides you to the summit of the stairs, / Be mindful to assuage my suffering!

See also

External links


Much of the content of this article comes from the equivalent French-language wikipedia article. The following references are cited by that article:

  • Bec, 1963
  • Géo Magazine, 2004
  • Institut de Sociolingüística Catalana, 2004
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