Last week I travelled to another country. However, I did not need to travel by car, train or plane. My mode of transport was a language that is still living and breathing despite centuries of repression.
We all know about Brittany and the Breton language, the Catalans in Barcelona and of course the sonorous and now very-much-living language of Welsh in the UK. How many of us were aware, though, that there is, or was, a different language in the south of France to the north of the country? And that it was called ‘lengua d’oc’, in contrast to the northern ‘langue d’oil’ – the distinction coming from the different ways of saying “yes”. The ‘langue d’oil’ evolved into modern-day French (‘oil’ becoming ‘oui’), having subdued its southern cousin.
However, you do not have to look far to find traces of modern-day Occitania, which is the name for a wide swathe of southern France, northern Spain and northern Italy where people once spoke the language of Occitan. My discoveries in the past week, from modern folk and rap bands to elderly speakers of the language who hold a dying culture in their hearts and tongues, have only gone to prove that a language means so much more than grammar and vocabulary.
In nearby Bourdeilles (‘Bordelha’ in Occitan) the ‘Paratge’ Occitan festival hit town the weekend before last. Music, exhibitions and talks, all free, were organised by the ‘Agence-Culturelle Dordogne-Périgord’. Our neighbours Andréa and Cyrile, who both work for them, tipped us off that the band ‘Lo Cór de la Plana’ from Marseille were the thing to see.
On Friday night we joined an expectant crowd, gathered in the courtyard of the 13th-century château. The buzz in the audience rose until lead singer Manu Théron strode on stage with just a tambor (drum) in his hand and a powerful voice that called everyone to awed attention. The remaining five singers strolled on one by one and for the next two hours, with just six voices and a few large drums they created a huge, rhythmic, wild sound that reverberated against the castle walls. I danced so much that my leg muscles nearly ceased up the next day.
The spirits of the 13th-century ‘troubadours’, poets who wrote in Occitan as well as many other languages, must have danced in their graves, too. The troubadours praised Occitan as a language suited to poetry rather than administration. However, they fled to Italy in the 13th century, driven by the Papal crusade against the Cathars. With them, the literary golden age of Occitan passed and it became a spoken language, rooted in the land and ‘paysan’ (peasant) culture.
The new generation of ‘troubadours’ are picking up where their ancestors left off and echoing their openness to other cultures. And while they take the language in new directions, another group of young artists, based in Périgueux, are celebrating the dying Occitan paysan culture and imagining a future where it returns triumphant.
Alida is our wonderful, hospitable eighty-year-old neighbour in the next hamlet of Verchiat. She was born and grew up in Verchiat but spent most of her adult life in Bordeaux. When Alida started school, she spoke only her mother tongue, Occitan, and her older brother was ashamed of this. Occitan was ‘patois’, to be stamped on and ‘purified’ with the superior ‘language’ of French. Yet Occitan is as much a language as Catalan (in fact it is very similar) or French. Last Saturday we gathered in Verteillac for the opening night of the artists’ exhibition, ‘Ce(ux) qui reste(nt)’, where Alida was the star of the show along with her childhood acquaintance, Albert Soulier.
Photographer Nicolas Lux, the project leader, is adamant that Occitan be recognised for its culture and not only the language. He is a descendant of Occitan speakers who, like Alida’s granddaughter, our friend Léa, can understand but not speak it. Nicolas and his friends wanted to create a piece of art that would appeal to young people and that would look to the future rather than enshrine the past.
Inspired by the older generation of fluent Occitan speakers, they spent months recording the stories and “connaissances” (knowledge) of Alida and Albert. Rather than simply recount the past in their final artwork, a ‘bande dessinée’ (graphic novel), they took those stories and transported them into an imagined post-apocalyptic future where the Occitan paysan knowledge of how to work the land becomes vital once more.
Alida talks of her neighbour Dédé Gardillou, the ‘last paysan’, who lived off the land. She laments his passing, saying in Occitan “Eu viviá avesque sa terra” – “he lived with his land”. Yet although the Occitania of today is a different country to that of Alida’s childhood, it seems to me that if language and culture adapt, they could well survive.