Òai? Ouais!

The many tongues of Occitania
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 2, 2008

Men from Mars(eille): Lo Còr de la Plana invade Boston. By Jeffrey Gantz.
It was Dante who distinguished the three literary languages known to his Italy by their word for “yes”: “For some say ‘oc,’ others ‘si,’ and still others ‘oil.’ ” Those who said “si” (from Latin sic, now ) were Italian; those who said “oil” (from Latin hoc ille, now oui) were French; those who said “oc” (from Latin hoc, now òc) were Occitan, and they spoke the most important European literary language of Dante’s time, the language of the troubadours. English-speaking people have been accustomed to call this language Provençal, but it was, and is, spoken all over the south of France, not just in Provence, and the troubadours were not all, or even mostly, from Provence.

These days, the people who speak it can’t decide on what to call it, or even whether it’s one language. You could call Occitan a language family comprising Gascon, Limousin, Auvergnat, Languedocien, and Provençal; you could call Occitan a language and the others dialects. Either one will pass muster in, say, Toulouse, but not in Marseille and Nice, where the language (it’s not a dialect, gramarci) is Provençal and they don’t much care what everybody else speaks or calls it. The Provençaux view “Occitan” as a code word for Languedocien and an attempt to privilege that as the language of the French South. It’s true that if you decide you’re going to learn “Occitan” (and all of a sudden you can), what you’ll be learning is Languedocien, which is the most central member of the Occitan family, the most conservative, and the most like the language of the mediæval troubadours. If you want to become a hip-hop star in Marseille, on the other hand, you need to tell the language guys to get going on Teach Yourself Provençal.

Related: Men from Mars(eille), French tickler, Words, words, words, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Culture and Lifestyle, Language and Linguistics, French Language
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