Are you a word nerd?
We’re about to find out.
There’s a whole side of French you may have never known existed.
But even if etymology isn’t your idea of a party, there can still be something in it for you. Knowing a few things about the origins of words can be a very memorable way to learn, as well as to deepen your understanding and appreciation for the history of your target language.
This post will look at Occitan, a language of Southern France whose influence pops up all over standard French. Looking at how this happens can help you keep these new French words lodged in your brain, as well as gain some perspective how modern French developed.
In this post we’ll look first at what Occitan is and who speaks it (it’s not quite dead yet!). Then we’ll delve into some major elements of Occitan that have crossed over into French and what happened to this vocabulary when it arrived.
So, What’s Occitan?
Occitan, which you’ll sometimes also hear referred to in French as langue d’oc, hails mainly from Southern France, with some small outposts in what’s now Italy and Spain.
The language could itself be considered a “family” of languages or dialects including Provençal, Languedocien, Gascon, Auvergnat, Limousin and Vivaro-Alpin. It’s also very close to Catalan. As a Catalan speaker I have been able to hold conversations with Occitan speakers without any problems.
Speaking of which, if you want a chance to speak Occitan, you have to really go looking for it. Most people in Occitania (that is, the Occitan lands) don’t speak it anymore. Those who do tend to be very old, or else young activists hoping to save the language as it makes its last gasps. France’s crusade against regional languages is very nearly complete.
Nevertheless, even if it dies out the language will at least be remembered through its influence on French. Since French and Occitan were neighbors for centuries, there were lots of opportunities for this crossover to take place.
As with America’s Spanglish, there’s also a crossbreed of the two that’s called Francitan. And, as I’ve previously documented for this blog, in Toulouse there’s a lot of regional slang that’s taken from Occitan. You’ll soon start to see all the various areas of overlap and origin here.
However, keep in mind that some etymologies—including those discussed in this post—are still being debated among linguists. There’s plenty of discussion to be had on this fascinating topic, but there’s no doubt of its linguistic importance!
Harness 4 Elements of Occitan to Deepen Your Understanding of French
The following are all important parts of modern standard French; the origins may be region-specific but you can use the vocabulary that you’ll learn in this post anywhere in the French-speaking world.
1. Amour and other -our and -eur words
The word amour (love) seems so quintessentially French, doesn’t it?
From the perspective of Anglophones struggling to learn French in France, that second vowel is fiendishly tricky to achieve, as is the emotion itself. But amour is, in fact, an Occitan import.
Occitan troubadours once traveled through France singing about amor.
But, ah, the Latin students out there might be saying, “how do we know that amour was borrowed from the Occitans, and not taken from directly from the Latin amore?”
The answer is that French (in its Picardy dialect) already did have its version of the Latin word, ameur. The fact that modern French uses amour instead of ameur shows that the Occitan version of the word won out.
We thus know that the words fleur (flower), douleur (pain) and chaleur (heat) followed a similar path through Occitan before being borrowed by French, also due to their vowel sounds. The original Occitan words were flor, dolor and calor.
For those who study other romance languages, you’ll notice regular, easy variations from the Italian, Spanish, Catalan or Portuguese with these French words.
2. The obsession with good eating
Southern France is famous for its gourmandise (love of good food/gluttony) and so it thus makes sense that some of its food vocabulary would make its way from Occitan into standard French.
- The Occitan caçòla (pan) gave French the words cassoulet (the diminutive form of the Occitan word, used to describe a typically Southwestern French slow-cooked meat stew) and casserole (a pan, as well as a stew or casserole that’s cooked in it).
- Bouillabaisse is the French name of a fish stew from Marseille. This French name for it comes from the Provençal words bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to simmer). In French, those words are bouillir and mijoter.
- Also from the sea is the French dish brandade, which is an emulsified mixture of salt cod and olive oil. Brandada in Occitan is a mixture. You can use the rare word branlement (mixture) in French, though it may produce snickers—se branler is very common slang for “to screw around, doing nothing” and has some sexual undertones. Mélange is the more common French term for “mixture.”
- Aïoli, a treasured condiment from the Southwest known throughout France, comes from the Provençal alh (garlic, ail in French) and oli (oil, huile in French). It’s a (strong!) garlic mayonnaise that’s gaining popularity in the United States and elsewhere.
- You can wash it all down with the French pastis, an anise liquor that’s served mixed with water (and then becomes spookily cloudy). The word pastís in Occitan means “mash-up.” It’s popular throughout France, particularly on sunny summer days.
- For dessert, one can have some French nougat, from the Occitan pan nogat (nutty bread). As you likely know, nougat is a chewy confection of roasted nuts, egg whites and sugar or honey.
3. Animal names
The following animals were originally Occitan, and French took on versions of the Occitan names.
I’ll give the French word, followed by the Occitan, followed by the English. You’ll see a certain obvious pattern in how these words became Frenchified.
- abeille (f) — abelha — bee
- aigle (m/f) — aigla — eagle
- cigale (f) — cigala — cicada
- faisan (m) — faisan — pheasant
- rascasse (f) — rascassa — scorpion fish
- daurade (f) — daurada — sea bream
4. Miscellaneous screwball words
- The French word for lawn, pelouse, comes from the Occitan pelosa or peluda, which means hairy or shaggy. It’s a memorable (or disturbing?) image for a lawn, isn’t it? If you want to describe someone as hairy in French, you can use poilue.
- We don’t have any word for an aubade in English, but in French it’s a serenade performed at dawn below the windows of one’s true love. It comes from the Occitan aubada and was popularized by troubadours. Let’s be honest, in our modern era a nighttime serenade is just going to cause most of us to call the police. But things can change! Here’s hoping that this hot Occitan romance tactic makes its way into English someday too.
- A badaud (m) is an onlooker or a gawker. This word comes from the Occitan badar which means “to yawn” (bâiller in French).
For further adventures into better understanding French—and, of course, improving your vocabulary and retention of it—by looking at word origins from Occitan, you can check out this article (in French).
Here’s a useful Occitan-French dictionary to keep you moving and learning.
And, if you found this exercise useful for memorizing new vocabulary, or if you’re a word nerd planning a wild Saturday night, you can head to this French etymological dictionary.
Mose Hayward blogs about language learning and romance around the world, including in that nation of 11.5 million hotties just south of Occitania.
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