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Occitan Language Primer

History and development
Often incorrectly referred to as Provencal in English, Occitan (or Langue d'oc) is one of the many so-called Romance languages that grew out of "Vulgar Latin". Whereas the Langue d'oil dominated the north of France, the Langue d'oc dominated much of the south. Historically, it was dominant from Aquitaine in the west, across the Pyrenees to Languedoc-Roussillon and along the Mediterranean Coast to the French and Italian Alps.

Occitan was very influential in the early middle ages, even being the vehicle for the poetry of the famed troubadours. As the power of the French State grew, and in particular following the 1539 Villers-Cotteręts Ordinance in which King Francis I made Langue d'oil the official State language, Occitan began to decline in stature. The monarchy’s disdain for regional languages carried over into the revolution when the central government made strident and somewhat successful efforts to eradicate the language. Although it did experience a literary revival in the 19th century, Occitan never managed to regain its former glory.

Related languages
Distinguishing between dialects, variants and languages can sometimes be very difficult. In the case of Occitan, there is a minority view that it is not in fact a language but rather a group languages comprised of Auvergnat, Gascon, Limousin, Languedocian and various forms of Provencal. Whilst there are certainly differences between them, they are extremely mutually intelligible, and the predominant view is that they are merely variants of Occitan.

Occitan is similarly very close to Catalan with both languages stemming from the same source and only diverging in the early middle ages. Mutual intelligibility, in particular with regard to written texts, is extremely high. Due to its geographic location at the crossroads of the romance languages, Occitan shares features with all its neighbours and mutual intelligibility is relatively high.

Status today
Whilst only a tiny percentage of Occitan speakers live in the Vall d’Aran in northwest Catalonia in Spain (there are around 4,000 and they actually speak Aranese, which is a form of Gascon), this is the only place where the language is officially recognised. It is nevertheless also still spoken in pockets of Southern France and the Occitan valleys of Italy (Piedmont & Liguria).

Whilst some studies claim that there are as many as two million native speakers across France, Italy and Spain plus an additional seven to eight million people who can understand the language, anybody who has visited the region will know that you almost never hear it spoken in the street. Many argue that this is caused by a mistrust of outsiders born of long centuries of oppression that has contributed to a certain hesitance to speak the language in public. The real story, however, is that France’s longstanding French only policy has led to a dramatic decline in the number of native speakers, with around 600,000 being a more realistic number. Like most dwindling languages, very few of these are young people and the outlook for the language is not good.



 
 
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