The Same Country Divided by Countless Languages

Occitan flag – also the symbol of the Midi-Pyrénées Region. Nimlar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today we paid an Easter visit to our elderly neighbours, M. et Mme. F. We are very fond of them but our conversations with them are sometimes characterised by total incomprehension on our side. This is not just a cultural thing; it’s also because M. F is virtually unintelligible. The reason is that Occitan is his first language and he speaks French with its cadences.

M. F is now in his mid-eighties. As a boy, his family spoke Occitan, the generic name for the languages of much of southern France. He learned French because that was the administrative language and the one used in schools. Our friend Claude, now in his sixties, says that his parents spoke Occitan at home but he was forbidden to do so at school. Even now, he understands it but never speaks it.

Linguistic diversity

What is Occitan? It’s not one but a wide range of languages based on common roots – the langues d’oc (the word for yes). They are distinct from the northern French languages, or the langues d’oïl. Occitan is closer than French to Latin. France was far from a united or homogeneous country, even after the Revolution, and the language differences reflect this.

In his fascinating book The Discovery of France (Picador 2007), Graham Robb explores this linguistic diversity. He includes a map showing the distribution of languages and dialects in France. An even more striking map charts the extent of French speaking in 1863. The closer you got to the Pyrénées, the more likely it was that 90-100% of the communes were not French-speaking.

Robb traced the line of the divide between oc and oïl in the upper Limousin. In between is a sort of narrow hinterland, where the languages have elements of both oc and oïl. Robb says the authorities thought that by imposing a standard language they would impose order on a benighted and anarchic country. Mostly, France wasn’t lawless, but gradually official French stuck and speaking it became the mark of an educated person. Many people remained bilingual, though, and, as Robb nicely puts it, “Speaking the national language was the equivalent of putting on one’s Sunday best.”


Occitan was primarily a spoken rather than a written language. Today, it is enjoying a revival. All the village signs in our area show not only the French spelling but also the Occitan spelling of the village name, e.g Caylus (French), Cailutz (Occitan). An estimated three million people speak Occitan. Despite this, the Académie Française, which polices the French language, refused to recognise regional languages since it considered they weakened national identity.

The revival has also given rise to Occitan dictionaries and our local newspaper prints articles in Occitan. But words and phrases varied between areas and even between villages so it is impossible to pin it down precisely. However, the similarities were greater than the differences so people who lived maybe fifty kilometres apart would have been able to understand each other.

You have to be careful how you describe Occitan to the locals. I made the mistake of referring to it as “patois” (dialect) to a friend, whereupon she roundly lectured me. “Occitan is a language in its own right! It’s only centralising bureaucrats who refer to it as dialect.” Passions run high.

An Occitan “hymn” even exists, entitled “Se Canto”, which has numerous variations – all spelt slightly differently. Its origins are lost in the mists of time but it’s known throughout southern France. Every year in late August we sing it at the end of the final Espinas walk of the summer as a kind of “auld lang syne”. It tells of a bird who sings beneath the narrator’s window every night. But the bird sings for the man’s lover, who is far away from him across the mountains.

Here is the chorus with my English translation:

Se canto, que canto canto pas per you,
Canto per ma mio qu’es ai lein de you.       

If he sings, it’s not that he sings for me;
He sings for my love, who is far away from me.

First sign of spring - primadèla in Occitan
First sign of spring – primadèla in Occitan

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune. All rights reserved


  1. Hi – I appreciate you may not have time to help with this, but I wondered whether you could help us with my daughter’s school project?

    We’re trying to collect the words ‘one hundred and forty’ in 140 different languages, as part of her idea to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the school.

    If you were able to send me how 140 would be written in Occitan, or point me in the direction of someone who could help, that would be fantastic.
    I hope you don’t mind me contacting you like this,

    Many thanks

    Best regards
    Clare Ryland (London)


    • Hi Clare,
      Thanks for your request. I have emailed you with what I think is the answer but I have also asked a friend, whose parents spoke Occitan, since he might know. Best of luck to your daughter with her project.
      Best wishes,


  2. Hi Vanessa
    You may be interested to read in ” Face to Face ” with Doreen Porter on TAG on line blogspot an interview with a lady who teaches Occitane in St.Antonin Noble Val. Muriel Vernieres gives weekly lessons to all levels.
    Your post was also very informative
    Thank you


    • Thanks very much for this information, Val. I’ll go and have a look at Doreen’s interview. I would be quite interested in learning Occitan but am not quite sure if I could cope with yet another language!


  3. It’s fascinating the history of language and allegiances, I listened to a history professor speak about the cloister in the cathedral here in Aix, telling some American students that “we are not really French”, after all this city was founded more than 2000 years ago and it has only been French for 500 years, not so very long in terms of the city’s history.


    • Quite right. France as it is known now is a comparatively modern construction. I find the history of language and allegiances fascinating. The southwest has always had something of a separatist tradition, which persists today.


  4. Graham Robb has so much fascinating stuff to say about France and all the different languages, I have recommended his book to loads of people.
    Occitan is rather like Catalan, or so my partner Leaf tells me. He speaks Catalan and was able to join in a conversation in Occitan between the young farmers in our village. They were very surprised.
    I remember trying to understand an elderly farmer when I lived up in T & G. It wasn’t easy.
    Your account of the history of the language is very interesting, thank you.


    • Occitan is very similar to Catalan. Our choir is learning a song in Catalan for our next concert but I’m willing to bet that anyone who understands Occitan would also understand Catalan. They are closer to each other than Occitan is to French.


      • Yes, he does still speak Occitan and he also has a strong local accent; says “allora”, as in Italian, instead of alors for instance.


        • What you say convinces me that more people are speaking Occitan than they did, say, 50 years ago. The local accent adds an a or e on the end of almost every word. So ‘bonjour, Monsieur’ becomes ‘bonjoura Monsieura’. I find the cadences of the local accent really quite delightful. Long may it last.


  5. I love the way ‘you’ seems to mean ‘me’ in your quoted poem! Would you believe I specialised in Ancient Provencal (sorry, no cedilla on my iPad) at university…can’t remember a single word now…though I am a huge supporter of ‘minority’ languages…let’s hope Occitan survives.


    • I’ve seen it spelt in different ways – iou or yiou are common. I think Occitan probably will survive. It’s enjoyed a tremendous revival in the past few decades and people feel strongly about it down here.

      You must have read Frédéric Mistral who, as I understand it, had a role in rehabilitating the Provençal language.


  6. I remember when I was studying in Toulouse, all the street signs were in Occitan and French. However, I didn’t realize many spoke it still. Do people really speak it “fluently?” I know people study it but the majority who can speak a decent amount are older I think. Most young people may know a few words here and there but I didn’t think any could actually speak it well.

    France’s position on regional languages has always fascinated me, considering its southern neighbors Spain has allowed Catalan, Basque, and Gallego to flourish in the regions of Catalonia (and also Community of Valencia), the Basque Country, and Galicia. Many people do actually speak Catalan and Gallego fluently (Basque not so much) and the Spanish government formally recognizes these languages.


    • I can’t really answer the question about whether younger people speak Occitan fluently – but see Liz’s comment about her friend in his mid-forties who grew up speaking it; and Floss’s about her son’s class at college.

      I think the government does recognise these languages in France – Hollande made a pronouncement on the subject before his election as president. The Académie Française is not a government institution but is influential in safeguarding the French language.


      • When I mean the Spanish government has formally recognized these languages, I mean the languages have official status in Spain. The regional governments of Galicia, Catalonia, Community of Valencia, and the Basque Country officially have two languages. Some schools are only Catalan/Basque/Gallego speaking, there are Gallego/Basque/Catalan television channels and radio stations (including websites), and books are translated into these languages. Many families in Catalonia only speak Catalan and rarely speak Spanish. As far as I can see, regional languages in France such as Occitan or Breton do not have official status. French is still the only official language recognized by the French government. So far it has refused to legitimize Occitan or Breton. However since Hollande has alluded to these languages being important, maybe his government will take steps to make them official.


        • Yes, French is still the only official language in France, as I understand it. But, for example, Occitan is now spoken and taught in schools, whereas 50 years ago it wasn’t recognised and was forbidden in schools – hence our friend Claude who understands Occitan but never speaks it. It’s an interesting issue: historically, France was just as heterogeneous as Spain but it was felt necessary to impose a national language in France and to suppress the regional languages. That this didn’t work is patently obvious.


  7. My son’s class in College has an Occitan-speaking group within it . They study maths in Occitan as the maths teacher is a passionate Occitan speaker. It’s interesting to hear mums outside the school gate speaking it too. Our elder son took a year’s ‘Occitan Language and Culture’ course, just out of interest . I love the rolling ‘r’s of the Occitan accent in French! To the amusement of some, I have picked them up! Thanks for your history of the language (s).


    • The accent is lovely but does make French spoken in it difficult to understand sometimes. We are told that we have picked up something of the regional accent – putting an e at the end of every word, for example!


  8. Fascinating. Living part of the year in Caunes Minervois, I have spoken with neighbours who are proud that their 11 year old son speaks French, excellent English, excellent Portuguese and Occitan. Visiting the Limoux carneval has introduced me to the cadence you refer to, and of course the different vocabulary….. first heard of my me…through the Kate Mosse books. I have really enjoyed reading this. Thanks. J.


    • These days of course with TV and modern communications the language barriers are breaking down. Nonetheless, as I said in the post, Occitan is enjoying a revival and you can still hear it spoken in the local markets. Even the French down here sounds like Occitan! But, with a few exceptions, it’s mostly the elderly people that speak it now.


  9. It’s interesting isn’t it? Since I like to learn language by ear it’s hard here, because these delightful old people correct me to the way they speak eg. “moins” becomes “mwence” here …. I’ll try not to speak like this in Paris! Interestingly, when I break into Italian they say they quite understand me, which is nice when I can’t find the French word.


    • The regional accent here is impenetrable at the best of times. If you have Italian and/or Spanish down here it can be more understandable than standard French.


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