What is language revitalization about? Some insights from Provence

by James Costa (Sorbonne Nouvelle / UMR LACITO (CNRS), Paris)

Should you find yourself in Provence this summer, you might wonder why some villages have bilingual signs at the entrance. Your surprise would be forgiven, since you are unlikely to have heard anything but French in most places, and likely a lot of English as you approach the Mediterranean. But if you listen more closely, observe more closely, you might come across a world that is fast vanishing, but that is still present. You might stumble upon a concert in a language that you cannot identify, or wonder why some street names don’t sound French. You might even hear people speak Occitan—for this is what it is, a language also known as Provençal, one which many locals will refer to as “Patois” (a derogatory term in France to refer to anything other than French traditionally spoken in the country).

provençal
Bilingual sign (French, Provençal)

This sort of experience might happen to you in Provence, but not only. Across the European Union, several million people speak a language that is not the official language of the state they live in. Across Europe, there are language advocates who defend and promote the right to speak one’s language. This struggle for language rights also extends to Latin America, North America, Australia, and many other places. This, many scholars assert, is a consequence of globalization—a backlash against uniformity if you like. A way of being oneself, of finding meaning locally in a world that seems to be getting smaller. In my recent book, Revitalising Language in Provence: A Critical Approach, I argue otherwise. Those movements are not a reaction to globalization—they are, on the contrary, a way of taking part in this process, on the very terms defined by those who define what globalization is (and not on their own terms, as Leena Huss [2008, 133] asserts).

But let’s start from the beginning. This book focuses on Provence, home to what is perhaps the earliest language reclamation movement, or at least one of the earliest. Poets had already started writing texts in defense of Gascon, Provençal or Languedocien (all dialects of what most scholars of Romance linguistics view as Occitan) back in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is perhaps a consequence of an increasingly aggressive move to promote French in all administrative domains at the expense of Latin and Occitan, which had been in use for official usage for centuries in what is now Southern France. But it was after the French Revolution Terror government (after 1793) sought to eradicate the “patois” that a genuine interest was born in various parts of France, resulting in the south in a rediscovery of the poetry of Medieval Troubadours and in a scholarly interest in the history of Provence and Languedoc before their annexation to France. It wasn’t, however, before the 1850s that an organized language-based movement was formed, under the aegis of poets such as Frederic Mistral or Joseph Roumanille.

The Felibrige was the name they gave to their movement, a name whose origin remains mysterious. The Felibres sought to revive the Provençal or Occitan language (which was still almost universally spoken in all of Southern France) through poetry and literature. And indeed, Mistral published a series of long, epic poems that were hailed across Europe as monuments of literature. Mirèio is probably his most well known poem, a love story set in the Crau region of Provence and an allegory of the language revival movement. Mirèio was acclaimed in Paris as a chef d’æuvre, and was prefaced by Lamartine.

I recount parts of the history of the movement in the book but for this blog post, suffice it to say that while successful on a literary level, it never succeeded in political terms. Provençal was long banned in education, and despite a strong Occitan movement throughout the 20th century, the use of Provençal continued (and continues) to decline. But the story I tell in this book isn’t the story of the language movement. Instead, following a two-year ethnographic study in Provence, I ask why the movement was based on language at all, like so many others afterwards—but, crucially, none before, or at least none before the 1840s.  Continue reading “What is language revitalization about? Some insights from Provence”