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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Lenga nòstra?: Local Discourses on Occitan in Southwestern France

  • Author(s): Ritchey, Elyse
  • Advisor(s): McLaughlin, Mairi
  • et al.

Use of the Occitan language in southern France has steadily declined over the past eight centuries, as part of a societal shift toward French. This shift has culminated in the current endangerment of Occitan (UNESCO, Ethnologue). Native speakers are aging rapidly, and according to some estimates, the language will disappear by the end of the 21st century (Bernissan 2012, Kranzer 2015). Contemporary efforts to revitalize Occitan have been well received. Whereas the language was once an obstacle to the acquisition of French and denigrated as a patois, it now carries widely recognized cultural cachet (Martel 2013). Previous studies on Occitan have centered on language attitudes (Paulston 1994, Priest 2008, Joubert 2010), on ideological clashes between groups of different speakers (Blanchet 1992, Sumien 2006, Costa 2016, Escudé 2009), and on the presence of Occitan within particular spheres like education (Boyer 2009, Costa 2015) and the media (Alén-Garabato 2011, Hagège 2015). At present, there is a lack of research into the social, historical, and political factors that affect Occitan revitalization efforts on the local level. This study aims to address these factors by analyzing public discourses on Occitan circulating in two small communities in southwestern France, Carmaux and Villefranche-de-Rouergue. These towns are both located in rural areas, where contemporary society is troubled by economic transformation, an aging population, and the pressures of globalization.

The study is an in-depth analysis of contemporary texts drawn from three sources of public discourse: the press, government documents, and documents circulated by associations promoting the Occitan language. Such public discourses both reflect and shape social attitudes and practices. Thus, the representations of Occitan that appear in the corpus allow me to analyze the role that it plays in each community.

The three research questions that guide the study are as follows:


1. How is Occitan portrayed in public discourse in Carmaux and Villefranche-de- Rouergue?

2. What is Occitan’s role in local society, as evidenced in in public discourse in Carmaux and Villefranche-de-Rouergue?

3. In what domains of language use is Occitan portrayed as being present, according to public discourse in Carmaux and Villefranche-de-Rouergue?

In order to address the questions, I use a purpose-built corpus of public discourses, gathered during a fieldwork period at the two research sites. In order to analyze these texts, I employ a methodology adapted from Reisigl and Wodak’s Discourse-historical approach (2009).

Analysis related to the first research question indicates that explicit portrayals of Occitan are largely positive. I find that three Discourses predominate such depictions. The first insists on the aesthetic, emotional, and social value of Occitan. The second casts Occitan as a valuable part of the community. The third insists on Occitan’s role as a link with history, culture, and tradition. All three of them combine to create the impression that Occitan is vital to the community. This finding contrasts interestingly with analysis related to the second question, which finds that Occitan is highly restricted to a set of creative cultural practices that serve to reinforce a larger Occitan regional identity, not necessarily the local character of the town. Therefore, it appears that the limited presence of Occitan in the community is at odds with assertions of its vitality and relevance that appear in the corpus. Finally, analysis of the third research question shows that Occitan is represented as being marginally present or completely absent from all major domains of language use, save that of secular society. Most manifestations of Occitan are facilitated by language promotion and other civil society associations, and are related to cultural events. Thus, I conclude that the function of Occitan in Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Carmaux, as represented in the study corpus, is to facilitate community engagement and local identity, with emphasis on expansion of language use as a lower priority.

                This study suggests that Occitan is undergoing a process of language revalorization and being refashioned as a marker of community belonging in Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Carmaux (Beier and Michael 2018, Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer 1998). Previous studies have also remarked on the lack of dynamism and language acquisition in Occitan as a consequence of a lack of nationalism (Paulston 1994), being limited to ideology (Costa 2016), and failing to break free of state language ideology (Escude 2009). However, I propose that Occitan revitalization is best viewed as a community revitalization project that privileges traditional cultural and linguistic practices that emphasize conviviality and creativity as a response to modern social pressures.

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